Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Another missed anniversary

The weeks just fly past so quickly these days, and I keep missing significant anniversaries. Not so much personal ones, but historical ones.

One week ago was the anniversary of a terrible day of tragedy, when a group of unscrupulous, murderous thugs committed an atrocious crime against a democratic nation:

The September 11, 1973 military coup which overthrew the democratically elected government of Chile and replaced it with a right-wing junta lead by General Augusto Pinochet.

After the election of leftist Salvador Allende in 1970, the US government (then lead by Richard Nixon) waged undeclared economic war on Chile, hoping to bankrupt the nation. U.S. Ambassador Edward Korry said:

Not a nut or bolt shall reach Chile under Allende. Once Allende comes to power we shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and all Chileans to utmost deprivation and poverty.

President Nixon ordered CIA director Richard Helms:

Make the economy scream [in Chile to] prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him.

For three years the US and Chilean right-wingers tried to destabilize Chile and cause Allende's government to fall, leading to severe economic problems (including runaway hyperinflation) but despite this his party's popularity was actually higher than ever.

So in 1973, encouraged by the CIA, the Chilean military attempted, but failed, a coup in June, followed by a second, but successful, coup on September 11.

Within days, the military junta had arrested 40,000 people. Many of them were tortured and killed. Pinochet's regime was likely responsible for the murder of close to three thousand political enemies, and the torture of tens of thousands of others. In the first three years of the coup alone, 130,000 people were arrested. Over the course of Pinochet's criminal regime, at least 27,000 people were imprisoned and tortured without trial.

By the standards of some murderous dictators, Pinochet was relatively small-time. Nevertheless, a crime is a crime, and 3,000 murders is enough of a crime for some countries to invade two countries.

Amusingly, while Pinochet was no friend to the poor and middle-class of Chile, neither was he the lapdog of the old right-wing industrial oligarchy that supported his grab for power. Pinochet removed the trade protections and subsidies that allowed the oligarchy to maintain their economic and political power. Pinochet ran the country for the benefit of the wealthy, but they were his wealthy friends and international investors, not the old guard.

There's no honor among thieves.

Which reminds me... apparently there was another historically significant crime committed on September 11. Details of that crime and its consequences have not fully come to light.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

George's residency over now

Alas and alack, George Kamikawa's residency at the Rainbow Hotel has ended :-(

Last time I managed to get to see George play was back in February. Now he's heading back to Japan for personal reasons, but (fingers crossed) he'll be back in Melbourne in October.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Buffy Season 8

As people might have noticed from previous posts, I'm a huge fan of Joss Whedon's work: Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Serenity. I liked Fray, although I didn't go into raptures of ecstasy over that one like some people. Even Alien Resurrection, which was as horrible and deformed a monstrosity as the Ripley/Alien hybrid itself, nevertheless showed signs of Whedon's talents. Beneath the horrible, drool-covered grubby fingerprints and suspicious stains, one can just barely detect the faintest signs of an actual good story and interesting characters.

Particularly given the goodness that was Fray, I was hoping for fireworks from the comic book series of Season 8 of Buffy. Alas, it was not to be -- the first four issues haven't impressed me. The story itself is okay, but I expected better than okay from Joss. But it feels simultaneously rarefied and compressed: there's not enough happening, but what is happening happens too fast, if that makes sense. Perhaps that's a limitation of comic books compared to television, I don't know.

But the killer for me is that I just don't think the artist is good enough. There seems to be a tradition now for comics to have really good artwork on the covers and shockingly incompetent artwork inside. Take this example of somebody who supposedly is Giles:

Take away the cup of tea and he could be any guy in glasses -- take away the glasses and he could be any guy. It's not just Giles either -- the artist hasn't really captured the look of any of the characters from the series.

The characters faces are terribly inexpressive. They're supposed to be talking, and yet their mouths look like they're glued shut. There is little sense of kinetic motion in the artwork either: apart from action scenes, most of the time people look like badly-posed wax dummies.

I'm disappointed, and will have to think long and hard before buying any more of the series.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Those wacky Japanese

After Friday's 12 hour day at the office, I ended up putting in a mere 11 1/2 hour day today. (Just call me Aussie salaryman-san.) Sigh. There's a few stressful things happening at work at the moment (and by "a few" I mean "a lot"), so when I got home I ended up doing something I don't often do: browsing the web randomly with my brain switched off.

(By the way... à propos of nothing, dark chocolate-coated strawberry licorice is a drug. I can't believe I ate the whole pack in one sitting.)

Purely by chance (by which I mean Google) I came across this fine blog, by Jeff, a 20-something American in Tokyo married to a local woman.

Jeff's back in California, fighting the bureaucrats to get his wife allowed to join him, so he hasn't exactly been posting much as late, but check out the archives. Not all of the pages are exactly Safe For Work, but there's also a lot of fine amateur photography of Japan, so I'm sure you can plead ignorance if you get caught reading a post about bikini-clad Japanese women.

I've just spent the last few hours reading almost the entire blog just for the sheer joy of all the WTF? moments like:

Jeff clearly loves Japan, but he is no one-eyed Japanophile -- he's fully aware of the dark side of Japan's culture, like the hierarchical salaryman culture, the racism and ignorance, the corporate serfdom, and the reluctance to face up to underlying problems when you can merely paper over the cracks instead. And although he jokes about it, I detect a note of ambivalence about Japan's constant in-your-face sexual imagery. There's a culture gap between the West and Japan, but it isn't insurmountable. And in the meantime, it gives us something to laugh and shudder at.

As the Japanese no doubt do about us.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Why is there something rather than nothing?

One of the supposed "deep" questions that (we're told) only religion can answer is the question, Why is there Something rather than Nothing? Science might be able to explain the workings of the universe, but it can't explain why the universe exists, or so the philosophers and priests say.

But why shouldn't the universe exist? It's been assumed at least as far back as Leibniz that "nothing" is simpler than "something", that nothingness "just happens" but to get the material universe you need to do a bit more work.

But that's just an assumption. Why shouldn't there be Something rather than Nothing? Perhaps the best answer to the question is "Well, why not?". Maybe there can't fail to be Something. There's Something because there cannot fail to be Something.

There's no reason to prefer the assumption that nothingness is simpler than something. We have no experience of nothingness. Nothingness is not the same as a lack of some particular object. There is nowhere we can go or to point to and say "Look, there's nothing. It needs no explanation. Now, how did something form from it?"

We once believed that "Nature abhors a vacuum". Although we now know that it is relatively easy to remove all the matter from a volume of space, indeed most of the universe is a low-grade vacuum, we could easily revise the old saying as "Nature abhors Nothingness". Everywhere you go, there are electromagnetic and gravitational fields -- and even if you could shield a volume of space from them (how???) you can't avoid having space and time itself. Getting space-time isn't hard, it's already there. Getting the nothingness in the first place is hard.

It isn't as if nothingness floated around in space for millions of years before suddenly exploding into something in the Big Bang. Time and space themselves began in the Big Bang. There was no "before the Big Bang". The very question "what happened before the Big Bang?" is meaningless, like "what's north of the North Pole?".

We shouldn't make the mistake of assuming that Something needed to be somehow created from Nothingness. Maybe the natural state of being is that Something is easy and Nothingness would be the hard thing to explain -- except that naturally if there was Nothing we wouldn't be there to ask why there was Nothing rather than Something.

(We wouldn't be where?)

There is no justification for the priests' assumption that only God or Gods can explain why there is Something rather than Nothing. Consider: suppose we said that God created the universe from Nothing. But hang on a second -- we had just agreed that Nothing existed. How does God fit into Nothing? Isn't God Something? If you're going to say that God existed, why not just accept that the universe existed and be done with it?

"How do you get Something from Nothing?"

"Well, start with Nothing, then add one God that you had prepared earlier, and voilà! you have Something."

Cosmic Variance has more:

Ultimately, the problem is that the question — “Why is there something rather than nothing?” — doesn’t make any sense. What kind of answer could possibly count as satisfying? What could a claim like “The most natural universe is one that doesn’t exist” possibly mean? As often happens, we are led astray by imagining that we can apply the kinds of language we use in talking about contingent pieces of the world around us to the universe as a whole. It makes sense to ask why this blog exists, rather than some other blog; but there is no external vantage point from which we can compare the relatively likelihood of different modes of existence for the universe.

So the universe exists, and we know of no good reason to be surprised by that fact.

If you spend some time reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article, you may notice the knots philosophers have tied themselves into by confusing privatives like "holes" with actual things. Our human penchant for reification, as useful as it can be, also confuses us.

Atheists in foxholes

Reader Tootsie's Mom (hi!) raised the question of the lack of atheists in foxholes in this comment.

At the risk of driving away a valued reader, I have to respond that Tootsie's Mom is wrong: there are atheists in foxholes, both literally and figuratively, for all that the religious try to comfort themselves by denying it. For example, Master Sergeant Gid L. White wrote a public letter to Katie Couric chastising her for publicly propagating the untruth that there are no atheists in foxholes.

Another atheist who has been in foxholes is this guy's dad.

And as I've written about here and here, football star Pat Tillman, killed in Afghanistan, was also an atheist.

But what if it were true? Suppose that, when disasters are upon us or the bullets are flying, even the most hard-bitten rationalist atheist turns to the god or gods of your choice. What would that mean about the existence of god?

Very little. Just because we clutch the security blanket doesn't make it effective. Those who have watched as many Road Runner cartoons in their youth as I have will remember the running gag where the Coyote would often find himself standing beneath a falling anvil or rock. He would invariably get a look of resignation and despair and hold up a ridiculously tiny paper umbrella over his head, hoping against hope that, this time, it will protect him.

It never did.

I leave the last word to PZ Myers, who wrote:

It has always seemed to me that that old myth is actually an admission: an admission that religion is driven by fear. Just crank up the terror on people, it's saying, and we can get 'em to believe anything. There might be some truth to that, but if anything, it's an adage that is damning to religion, saying that faith is an exploitation of human weakness.

The Chaser security prank success

Have you ever wondered what sort of security AUD$250,000,000 buys? (Early reports suggested the cost of the security for APEC was $165 million; later figures suggested it actually cost $250 million. Either way, it is a lot of money.)

Apparently very little.

People are talking about The Chaser's wonderful prank where they drove a car with a fake Osama bin Laden right up to the highest security section of last week's APEC conference without being stopped. PZ Myers thought it was pure entertainment; Bruce Schneier is also a fan.

All the stupid security theatre and money wasted -- Australian taxpayers' money -- and it was only when Chas Licciardello, dressed as Osama bin Laden, stepped out of the car shouting "Where is my friend Bush? It has all been a misunderstanding!" that the security realised that something was wrong.

[Sarcasm alert] It's hard to blame the security guys. They're doing a simple job for lots of money: keep out people who don't belong. If they got fooled by The Chaser's cunning plan to put a Canadian flag on their cars, well, ask yourself: who wouldn't have been fooled? Just because "Osama bin Laden" was sitting in the back seat of a supposedly Canadian vehicle, well, that's hardly suspicious. And tell me that you too wouldn't have been fooled by this inauthentic-looking insecurity pass:

Insecurity pass

(Click image for full view.)

The Australian media, especially the Herald-Sun, loves to throw around the word "hero" to describe any Australian who basically isn't a total and complete waste of space. Saved thirty-seven children from a burning building? Hero. Rescued a cat stuck in a tree? Hero. Got hit by lightning and didn't die? Hero. Fell down drunk and chipped a tooth but didn't cry? Hero. But I think they really missed an opportunity to use the term appropriately. The Chaser guys might have been doing television comedy, but they were also making vitally important social commentary. As taxpayers and members of society, we are entitled -- no, not an entitlement, we have a duty -- to ask if our money is being put to good use. Spending a quarter of a million dollars, or even half that, for security which can be breached so easily is worse than a joke. The entire country should be thanking The Chaser for revealing that the Emperor has no clothes. Not only are they risking jail, but they actually risked their lives to make a point: all it needed was one trigger-happy government sniper on the rooftop and they could have been killed.

What we've learnt is that actual terrorists could have strolled right up to the restricted zone with no difficulty at all. Anybody could have done it. While the police were busy shutting down the entire city of Sydney (at who knows what economic cost) and keeping democratic protesters at least ten kilometres away from the conference, Osama bin Laden himself could have strolled right up to George Bush and given him a wedgie.

Or detonated a bomb.

If the clowns running this nation had really cared about security, instead of just the security opera of 24/7 helicopter fly-bys, snipers on rooftops and stopping tourists from taking photos, they would have held the conference somewhere inaccessible, like Canada did in 2002 when they held the G8 Conference in Kananaskis, population 429.

[Aside: I like these people.]

There's a certain level of tension between the needs of democracy -- the right of people to protest where they will be heard by those making the decisions -- and of security. Personally I think that the needs of democracy should outweigh those of security. Presidents and prime ministers might come and go, but democracy needs to survive. Protesters should be allowed to protest right outside George Bush's bedroom window, at least from 9am to 5pm. But if you want to put security first, then don't hold your conference in Sydney. Hold it miles away from any population centre, where you have more control over who comes in. That's good security and good economics.

Instead, what we got was bad security and bad economics, but lots of security opera. Good security should be as close to invisible as you can afford -- just visible enough so you know it's there, but not so much that it disrupts normal activity. Instead Sydney was completely disrupted, money was wasted, and for no good effect.

Naturally, the con artists who have wasted our money aren't happy about being exposed. NSW police minister David Campbell threw a hissy-fit at the tricksters:

An angry David Campbell denied he was embarrassed by the comedians' ability to penetrate APEC's restricted zone - rather, he was pleased the "multi-layered" security had worked.

He said the prank was inappropriate and he "did not see the funny side at all".

The Chaser's production team had been specifically warned by police to behave responsibly during the APEC security lockdown, he said.

"[Police] said 'we understand that parody and satire are entertaining and fun, many people watch the program and enjoy it, but please understand the seriousness of this matter and please take caution as you go about making your program.

"That seems to have been thrown out the window and that, I think, is inappropriate."

What's inappropriate is that Campbell hasn't been laughed out of town. Humourless, pretentious gits like him have no clue and should have no place in positions of power. Alas, the way of the world is that those who shouldn't have power so often do. The skills needed to become powerful so rarely include the skills needed to govern wisely.

The reality is that tricksters like The Chaser don't just make us laugh. Satire and parody are not just fun entertainments; they have a vital role in society. It has been said that medieval Fools, alone in the court, were permitted to make fun of the king and thus keep him from becoming too egotistical. (I doubt this was true in general, but it makes a nice story.) By puncturing the undeserved egos of the incompetent, tricksters help reduce the harm they can do. Far from being irresponsible, puncturing the illusion of security theatre is a fine example of civic responsibility.

Campbell had two possible responses to The Chaser's actions: he could admit to being embarrassed by the security failure and promise to do better, or he could bluster and blame the messengers. He choose to bluster and blame the messengers, and for that he should be out of government so fast it leaves his head spinning.

Unfortunately, for all of Australia's reputation as a nation of larrikins with a healthy disrespect for authority, we're becoming a nation of sheep who only do as we're told. (But that's a topic for another day.) Australians seem to have taken The Chaser team to heart, but not enough for them to demand real changes to the political system which allows the government to engage in this expensive security opera with no genuine benefit. While I would like to think that next time NSW voters go to the polls they will remember this and vote accordingly, the cynic in me expects that by this time next week it will all be forgotten.

This prank has punctured another myth. By showing just how easy it is for anyone to get through the loudest security money can buy, it puts a whole different perspective on terrorism. It doesn't take a devious master criminal to get through security. So where are all the terrorist attacks? If Chas Licciardello can get so close to the President of the USA, why hasn't a real terrorist managed it?

It isn't because the terrorists are afraid of our security, or because they're less competent than The Chaser. It's because they're few and far between. Despite the constant cries that the sky is falling, terrorists are thin on the ground. Unless you live in one of a few high-risk places, terrorism is a rare risk. The dangers of over-reaction are far greater than the danger we're trying to protect from.

The Chaser's press release can be read here; over here we have a long thread of comments where one angry right-winger (claims to be an ex-soldier; reads more like a scared little boy) gets angry at The Chaser for exposing the Emperor's New Clothes and says they should have been shot to punish them for discovering just how lousy the security really was. Oh my.

Thanks to Hasimir, who first brought The Chaser's cunning stunt to my attention (via Mrs Impala).

Honey chai latte

Lipton has introduced a new chai latte product.

Lipton chai latte
Lipton's powdered chai range now includes regular (I love it), Vanilla (even better) and Hazelnut (ho-hum). Joining them is the new Sweet Honey chai.

Sweet honey hey? I'm glad they didn't use bitter honey, or salty honey, or tastes-like-crushed-rock honey. They probably wouldn't be anywhere near as tasty.

Bin Laden rants again

Compared to previous time Osama bin Laden has made threats against the US and West, there's been little attention paid to his latest rant. Apart from the general silence, those few commentators who have talked about him have been mostly saying he made no threats against the US. Juan Cole wonders why they are denying he made threats.

Nevertheless, I think bin Laden is essentially irrelevant in the big picture. Not because he can't cause trouble, but he's essentially a murderer and trouble-maker, not a genuine threat against democracy and the West. He could kill some people, but he can't overthrown Western civilization and install a global Islamic theocracy. Not that he ever could, despite the Chicken Little cry-babies on the conservative-right of politics. (No, the only ones who are destroying the Western virtues of freedom, democracy, tolerance and liberty are our own leaders.)

Bin Laden is especially irrelevant in Iraq. Despite propaganda from the US government, al Qaeda In Iraq doesn't take orders from bin Laden, and even if they did, they're a tiny player in the civil war. As Juan Cole puts it:

Bin Laden, however, is not now and perhaps never has been a credible actor in Iraq. Most Iraqis are nationalists and would not want a Saudi telling them what to do. He made a big but perhaps unavoidable error in attacking the Shiites, and so denying his movement a nationalist platform. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is a small cult of hyper-Sunni bigots and serial murderers. Instead of playing Abdul Nasser, who attracted the allegiance even of many Shiite Arabs in his day, Bin Laden long ago chose to play the role of a cultist, a David Koreish with better explosives.


Bin Laden is like a venomous snake, always dangerous, and you never want to underestimate a cobra if it is in striking distance. But Iraq isn't the Afghanistan of the 1980s and 1990s, and if Bin Laden thinks it is, he is very out of touch.

Watching the last six years of stupidity unfolding has just made me more sure than ever that the right response to 9/11 was to treat it as a crime, not an act of war. Maybe the Taliban would have needed some sabre-rattling to cooperate, maybe we'd even need to send in troops to force the issue, but the fundamental strategy would be to treat bin Laden as a mass-murderer, capture him, put him on trial in the Hague, and lock him up to rot forever. No martyrdom for Osama!

Instead, we had the stupid games of the Bush administration threatening war if Afghanistan didn't hand bin Laden over for trial. When the Taliban offered to comply (see also here for another offer), the US invaded. Then, with bin Laden trapped like a rat, US forces were told to stand-down and watch as he escaped into the wilderness. Having sworn that nothing would stand in his way of catching bin Laden, Bush soon lost interest, and apart from occasionally remembering to mention the bogey-man, there has been no serious attempts to catch or kill bin Laden for years now.

A cynic would suggest that having bin Laden free to make threats suited the US government's purposes better than having him in jail or dead. A trial wouldn't have given them the excuse to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Mad King George visits Oz

As part of this week's APEC conference, Junior President George Bush [pic] visited Australia. According to MX "news"paper:

It took 4 jumbos, 16 cars, 1 ambulance, 250 Secret Service agents, 200 Government representatives, 150 security advisers, 50 White House aides, 15 sniffer dog teams and 5 chefs to move George Bush 300m today

Five chefs? As a dinkum Aussie, I take offense at that. We're a first-world, Western country. Our cuisine is quite similar to much of the USA's. We have no shortage of meat, which should make self-professed "meat guy" Dubyah happy. And we're not in the habit of poisoning visiting leaders of our major allies and trading partners no matter how much they deserve it. So why does Bush need to bring not just his own chef, but five chefs? He's only here for a week.

RMIT professor Noel Turnbull was quoted as comparing Bush's entourage as being more akin to something from King Louis XIV's reign:

"It's all pretence," Turnbull said. "The entourage is there to add lustre, not to add intelligence or anything else."

It makes a change from Junior Bush acting like Mad King George (see also here) but the analogy goes further. Like the Sun King, Junior Bush is a great believer in absolutism: the President is the law, never mind the pesky Constitution. Existing laws are there to be given lip-service to, obeyed if convenient and if not, ignored or replaced. And while Le Grand Monarque worked hard to keep his nobles so busy copying his extravagant fashions they had no money left to challenge his rule, Junior works hard to bankrupt the nation. (What's the point of being rich if you aren't surrounded by dirt-poor peons to lord over?)

ANU historian Dr Douglas Craig said that the security operation was justified for a disliked nation that had already endured a leader's assassination. (Actually, there have been four successful assassination attempts on US presidents, and seventeen unsuccessful ones). Two thoughts come to mind: many other nations have seen their leaders assassinated; and perhaps -- just a thought -- if the US is disliked, perhaps the government should consider ways to have people hate them less? You know, like, not acting like a schoolyard bully so often.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Some snippets on file-sharing news

I haven't written about the music industry and file-sharing for a while, so this is a good time to catch up on some news.

Apple's iTunes continues to be the biggest on-line seller of music around, and Apple still refuses to licence their Digital Restrictions Management software to other companies. Nevertheless, one company has found a way to compete with Apple, and has been rewarded by becoming the second-biggest seller of music on-line: eMusic sells mp3s without DRM software. The big labels are reluctant to compete with Apple by offering unencumbered music, so eMusic concentrates on the indie and over-25s markets, and with five million sales a month, it is extremely profitable for them and the bands.

Faced with interoperability problems and consumer surveys that show that UK consumers believe that only DRM-free music is worth paying for, the music labels are rethinking their approach. EMI already sells DRM-free music on iTunes; Universal is about to offer DRM-free music (but not on iTunes); and the CTO of label Gracenote is predicting that the major labels are likely to drop DRM for downloads within six months.

Meanwhile, the RIAA's battle against file-sharing isn't going well. One cleared defendant has been awarded $68,000 to cover her legal fees; another cleared defendant has launched a class-action suit against the RIAA for malicious prosecution; and another defendant has had the lawsuit against her dismissed with prejudice.

File-sharing is, essentially, normal, in the same way that taping music off the radio or TV shows off the telly are. Even the children of Warner Music CEO Edgar Bronfman turn to the file-sharing networks to discover new music. The tide has turned, and we're far better off reforming copyright law to make sure artists remain compensated than we are trying to enforce out-dated laws.

Attempts to shut down torrent-tracking sites still fail; the Pirate Bay has just re-launched Suprnova.org with a taunting message to the executives who tried to shut them down:

"Finally, some words for non-internet loving companies: This is how it works. Whatever you sink, we build back up. Whomever you sue, ten new pirates are recruited. Wherever you go, we are already ahead of you. You are the past and the forgotten, we are the internet and the future."

Home-made album hits the top of the charts

This is me, catching up on old news... thanks to Geek at Play comes this report from April: classically trained pianist and acoustic guitarist Kate Walsh's home-made album is (was) at the top of the iTunes album charts, knocking Take That off the top of the chart.

("Take that, Take That!")

Acoustic guitarist Kate Walsh has knocked Take That off the top of the iTunes download album chart - but does not even own an iPod.
The 23-year-old guitarist recorded her album in a friend’s bedroom and named it Tim’s House in his honour.

For good or ill, the Internet is revolutionizing the distribution of music.

Oh noes!!! Muh yum cha is stoleded!!!

Oh woe, oh woe!!! The best yum cha restaurant in Melbourne the southern hemisphere the world the entire known Universe, Ocean King in Glen Waverly, has stopped doing yum cha.

(Click image for full view.)

When will we get a PM we deserve?

When will Australia get a Prime Minister who will put Australia first? Our PM, "Honest John" Howard, has promised to stand by the US in Iraq regardless of the danger to Australia and the complete lack of any tactical or strategic benefit to our nation.

Mr Howard said Australia should stand by its ally in difficult times.


"One of the things that influenced my thinking is the belief that in the difficult time for your major ally, you should deliver as much international support and display as much international solidarity with your most important ally as is most appropriate."

This is the second time in recent months that Howard has nailed his flag to Bush's discredited, unpopular Iraq War. Six months ago, he tried a cheap-shot at Democrat presidential-candidate Barack Obama, and ended up embarrassing himself and his country when Obama challenged Little Johnny to put his money where his mouth is by sending more than a handful of troops to Iraq.

Somebody should take Howard aside and mention quietly to him that a true friend of the US would help them reduce their addiction on oil and violence, not encourage it. A true friend says "Come on mate, you've had too many, time to go home" and not "Fark ya all, me mate and me 'll take on any barstid in the house!". Especially when your contribution to the war effort is a few hundred troops deployed in the least violent part of Iraq.

In World Wars I and II, it was "for King and Country", and nary a word about whose king and country our boys were dying for. At least in WW-II there was an actual sense that our security was at risk from Japan, even if it turned out after the war that Japan had little or no interest in or capability of invading Australia. In Vietnam, it was "All the way with LBJ" -- our then-Prime Minister, Harold Holt, picked up the Democrat's slogan and made it his own, and we know how the Vietnam War turned out.

And now Iraq, where Howard has been one of Bush's most enthusiastic supporters (despite the lack of actual practical assistance in this ill-planned war), assuring the people of Australia that he had personally seen all the reams and reams and reams of conclusive evidence that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, no matter what the UN weapons inspectors said.

(That evidence turned out to be either non-existent or wrong. There was the plagiarized student's essay, the poor-quality forged papers claiming Saddam was buying uranium ore from Niger, and the lies told by the drunken Iraqi defector "Curveball". Curveball is an especially interesting example, because the West Germans who were handling him warned the US that his reports weren't trustworthy, but he became the centrepiece of the Bush administration's case for war because he told them what they wanted to hear.)

Australia's politicians have a long and inglorious history of putting our interests a distant second to those of the UK or the USA. It says something about our search for a national identity that many Australians don't even see anything wrong with that. For all our supposed patriotism, when it comes to international politics Australia is much abused and put upon by the US and UK, and we always come back for more.

Actually, I can think of one Prime Minister who did attempt to put Australia's national interest ahead of that of the US's -- Gough Whitlam, who was preparing to stand up to the US over their secret military base at Pine Gap. Coincidently, Whitlam was sacked by our Governor-General, Sir John Kerr. Despite the CIA referring to him as "our man Kerr", and despite the fact that he was an executive board member of a CIA front organisation, there's no reason to think Kerr acted at the instigation of the USA. (The coincidences sure stack up, don't they?)

Torture, part 1

Over at The Atlantic, Matthew Yglesias points out something that should have been obvious to even the dimmest among us: torture simply doesn't work for gathering intelligence except in fantasy land. 350 years ago, Hobbes pointed out that when you torture people, they tell you lies that might make you stop torturing them.

The myth of tortures effectiveness is understandable: the angry ape inside all of us might very well like the idea of ripping terrorists' fingernails out, and if you can save lives by stopping crimes before they happen by indulging in your sadistic fantasies, all the better.

But who do you want fighting the war on terror -- an angry ape, or an intelligent, sensible, calm and collected human being? I'll even go further: when it comes to a choice between having interrogators who know how to perform "waterboarding" and interrogators who actually speak the prisoners' language, my choice is the diametric opposite of that of the Bush administration.

Yglesias explains:

So in summary, what they've hit upon is a protocol based on the best practices developed by Soviet and medieval torturers alike to accomplish torture's traditional goal -- the extraction of false confessions -- and seem to have wound up with a bunch of false confessions. Which, of course, is precisely what you'd expect to wind up with if you thought for a minute about why governments have, historically, resorted to the systemic deployment of torture.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


That pious old fraud who spent her life shilling for the Vatican, Mother Teresa, turns out not to have been quite so pious after all: it seems that for most of her life in Calcutta, Teresa had serious doubts about the existence of the god known only as God. As CBS reports:

Shortly after beginning work in Calcutta’s slums, the spirit left Mother Teresa.

“Where is my faith?” she wrote. “Even deep down… there is nothing but emptiness and darkness… If there be God — please forgive me.”

Eight years later, she was still looking to reclaim her lost faith.

“Such deep longing for God… Repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal,” she said.

As her fame increased, her faith refused to return. Her smile, she said, was a mask.

“What do I labor for?” she asked in one letter. “If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true.”

(And why shouldn't she doubt? She'd spent her entire life doubting the existence of all the other gods.)

I can feel pity for the emotional pain she was going through, but her doubts make her actions even more unforgivable. Teresa, it seems, feared that she was a hypocrite. Not only was she a hypocrite, but one of her last wishes was for her letters revealing her doubts to be destroyed. That's hardly the action of somebody humble and unconcerned about her reputation, that's the action of somebody who wanted to protect her reputation after she was no longer around to look people in the eye and lie to their face about faith.

To pervert charity, as she did, in the name of saving people's immortal souls is bad enough, but to do it when you are sure that there are no immortal souls is far worse. If she had actually used the millions of dollars she had collected for charitable purposes, then she would be worthy of being made an icon of charity and compassion. But she didn't: the money disappeared into the Vatican's investment portfolio, enriching the church, while leaving the hospital she ran in a worse state than when she took it over.

I don't expect these revelations will make any difference whatsoever to the move to make her a saint. Her immoral perversion of charity has been known -- not widely known, but known -- for many years. But sainthood isn't about what Teresa actually did in real life, it's about creating a myth of Christian charity and compassion to inspire the next generation of believers who can be fleeced. It's no coincidence that Christianity holds up the sheep as the ideal to aspire to: fearful, stupid, prone to mindlessly following the leader. Goats, which are intelligent and independent-minded, have a poor reputation in the Bible.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Information gathering for ATLAS

If the Internet itself was created by the US military to be a redundant, highly-resistant to damage information network, the World Wide Web was created to allow physicists to share data from experiments in subatomic partical physics.

CERN, the birthplace of the WWW, is about to start a series of experiments which will push the boundaries in information gathering, processing and sharing beyond anything ever attempted before. Three-Toed Sloth discuss the incredible engineering work needed for the ATLAS experiments on subatomic particles, and the vast amounts of data the experiments will collect: petabytes -- millions of gigabytes -- per second. Almost twenty years ago, CERN gave us the Web. What will we get in another twenty years?

Monday, September 03, 2007

Another Coincidence Theory

Patrick Nielsen Hayden notes that the chairman of the investigation into the events of 9-11 was yet another oilman with close ties to Osama bin Laden:

I realize that only unreasonable people would make anything of the above. Why would anyone possibly worry about the fact that every time we turn around another prominent Administration member turns out to be up to his ass in business connections with shadowy Al-Qaeda supporters? Certainly I’m not worried. That would be tinfoil hat stuff. Not for me! I dismiss my misgivings with a stern flick of my Rational Mind! Also, monkeys fly out of my butt.

"I deeply resent the way this administration makes me feel like a nutbar conspiracy theorist." -- Teresa Nielsen Hayden

(Thanks to Three-Toed Sloth.)

I'm fully aware of the six degrees of separation thing -- given a motivated enough search, we can find a connection between virtually any two people on the planet. This especially holds for people in Big Business and politics, and double for the incestuous Boys Own Club of the oil barons. But it speaks volumes that the Bush administration doesn't give a rat's figgin for even the appearance of propriety. It's like they just don't care if people think of them as crooks and liars, almost as if the more suspiciously they behave, the better.

Hey, it's worked for seven years. Why stop now?

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Onion on opinions

When satire makes more sense than conventional wisdom -- The Onion reports that "38% of people not actually entitled to their opinion":

In a surprising refutation of the conventional wisdom on opinion entitlement, a study conducted by the University of Chicago's School for Behavioral Science concluded that more than one-third of the U.S. population is neither entitled nor qualified to have opinions.

"On topics from evolution to the environment to gay marriage to immigration reform, we found that many of the opinions expressed were so off-base and ill-informed that they actually hurt society by being voiced," said chief researcher Professor Mark Fultz, who based the findings on hundreds of telephone, office, and dinner-party conversations compiled over a three-year period. "While people have long asserted that it takes all kinds, our research shows that American society currently has a drastic oversupply of the kinds who don't have any good or worthwhile thoughts whatsoever. We could actually do just fine without them."

The difficulty, alas, is distinguishing the 38% from the rest...

(Here's a hint though... if you think that "If humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes?" is a good argument against evolution, you're in the 38%.)