Saturday, October 07, 2006

Cosmic compensation sought

A German lawyer reportedly wants to pursue state compensation claims on behalf of people who believe they were abducted by extraterrestrials. Apparently, Jens Lorek thinks this can be achieved under a law in Germany that grants state compensation for victims of kidnappings.

The enterprising Lorek sees such abductees as an untapped market of the legal profession, because for some strange reason these people are ordinarily “afraid of making fools of themselves in court.”

Mr Lorek seems confident that people abducted by aliens “could appeal for therapies or cures.” Indeed, they could start with a nice long therapeutic stay in one of the fine institutions provided by the German state just for the treatment of their ... um ... condition.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Mr Richardson snows Washington

In a recent address at Georgetown University in Washington DC, the Australian ambassador to the USA, Dennis Richardson, has done credit neither to himself, his country, nor our great American ally.

It all seemed innocuous enough, with our man in Washington extolling the good ol’ USA as a bulwark of freedom in the world, and praising the Americans for doing a lot of the ‘heavy lifting’ for the cause. From what I can gather, Richardson was just a little too unctuous for my taste – okay, maybe that’s just me – but fair enough, credit where due.

Then one reads the following verbatim passage from Mr Richardson’s speech:

The US has been asked to do the dirty work by a lot of the world and Guantanamo Bay has been part of that. . .

But I think there are quite a few countries around the world which want their cake and eat it.

They are prepared to criticise Guantanamo Bay but if you [the US] want to turn around tomorrow and say, “Well, look we understand where everyone’s coming from, everyone in Guantanamo Bay should now be released”, I think there would be issues there.

No! No no no no no no no!!

Is it too much to ask that our man in Washington get his facts and analysis straight?

As presented by Mr Richardson, the issue seems to have become: Either Guantanamo Bay continues as designed by the Bush Whitehouse, OR all detainees walk free. But – hallo, Dennis! – criticising the Gitmo regime is not the same thing as saying all prisoners should walk free.

What has been said by many, both government and non-government organs, is that the regime symbolised by Guantanamo Bay is seriously flawed, and incapable of delivering justice. The world doesn’t want the detainees necessarily to walk free, but rather for them to be subject to a reasonably fair and transparent administration of justice, where indeed they have a case to answer.

That our man in Washington has chosen to very shabbily misrepresent what is, after all, a glaringly obvious problem, is a disservice both to his country and to our great ally. That Mr Richardson is the mouthpiece of our Australian Government in Washington proves merely that our government couldn’t lie straight in bed on the Guantanamo issue. The Government’s culpable inaction regarding Guantanamo detainee David Hicks has left it hopelessly compromised, and pathologically unable to speak to the issue without dissembling.

Goat Friday

Um ... Three Goats of the Apocalypse...?



It's reported here that two CSIRO researchers have won an IgNobel Prize for their research on how many photos you need to take to ensure that nobody in a group-photo has their eyes closed.

Nic Svenson and Dr Piers Barnes have determined that for a group of under 20 persons, dividing the number of people by three gives the number of shots needed. As the size of the group increases, the number of shots required increases exponentially. At around 50 people, you can “kiss your hopes of an unspoilt photo goodbye.”

For other IgNobel winners, see the source story. But for rank goatery, it’s hard to go past this story:

Police say they were astounded at the actions of a man they say was trying to drive from Kalgoorlie, in south-eastern Western Australia, to Perth, in reverse. ...

Officers pulled him over and allege the 23-year-old Perth man told them his transmission had failed so he was driving the 500 kilometres in reverse.

It is alleged he told officers he had reached speeds of 80 kilometres an hour but had had to slow down to 65 kph because he was swerving too much.

He was charged with reckless driving and is due to appear in Coolgardie court on Monday.


Previous Goat Friday
Cute baby goats with fluffy bums

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Burma policy by numbers

If Greg Sheridan’s latest column is anything to go by, we may soon expect the Australian Government to announce closer, even intimate, bilateral ties with the ruling junta in Burma, nominally to ‘enhance regional security’.

You see, Sheridan is worried that Burma could become a staging post for attacks on Western interests in neighbouring countries, if Australia doesn’t take up the junta’s request for more direct anti-terrorism ‘assistance’. Yep, that’s the kind of assistance that entails military and intelligence training and such.

Sheridan acknowledges Burma is “the worst regime in Southeast Asia in terms of gross human rights abuses”. He concedes also that the regime could use whatever assistance Australia gives it to step up repression against its domestic enemies.

To ‘solve’ this ‘moral dilemma’, cue the spectre of another Bali:

The war on terror adds an acute new dimension to the dilemma. If terrorists use Burma as a base to conduct an operation in, say, Bangkok, which kills hundreds of Australians, there will be nobody saying to the Australian Government, well at least you kept the purity of your policy intact. Instead, they will damn Canberra for ignoring a glaring hole in the regional counter-terrorist effort.

There follows discussion of the problem of terrorism in the Philippines, which may or may not illuminate the case of Burma. But, cutting to the inevitable ‘corollary’, Sheridan concludes: “Now the Burmese would like more assistance in their counter-terrorist efforts. Frankly, we’d be ill-advised to decline.”

Well, frankly Sheridan does a sterling job of connecting the dots in such a way that this conclusion seems inevitable. The trick is, of course, to omit any depth of dimension from the discussion.

For one thing, does anyone seriously consider the Burmese junta to be the kind of regime that would tolerate the presence within its territory of any armed groups that were not consummately engaged in protecting and consolidating its own political and commercial interests? Burma’s rulers are cultivating a resources boom, which places them squarely within the Western sphere of influence. They are not about to have any truck with extremist groups that will jeopardise that relationship.

Consider also that repression domestically by the junta of ethnic and other oppositional groups is more likely to promote armed extremism within that imprisoned country. If any ‘assistance’ the West were to lend the regime was to contribute to the repression of these groups, that would likely be sowing the seeds of further extremism, very possibly aimed towards the West. It was for these kinds of considerations that the UN Security Council recently decided that the Burmese regime’s egregious abuses are a threat to peace and security in the region.

In his column, Sheridan describes how Burma is already the beneficiary of Australian ‘anti-terrorism assistance’ by arrangement through ASEAN. Perhaps that’s already a long enough spoon with which to sup with the devil.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Pluto belongs to everyone

Here’s some more on Pluto from astronomer Duncan Steel, on last Saturday’s edition of ABC Radio National’s The Science Show. The recent reclassification of Pluto as a dwarf planet, he says,

...has outraged many members of the public and I tend to agree with them – as the old 1920 song says, “The Moon belongs to Everyone, the best things in life are free, the stars belong to everyone, they gleam there for you and me. In my opinion the same applies to Pluto, it belongs to everyone.” ...

It was perhaps inevitable that Pluto would eventually be demoted although I’m sure that many people will prefer to continue calling it a planet.

Steel goes on to criticise the demotion of Pluto, saying that “when the International Astronomical Union, of which I am a member, voted to downgrade Pluto it failed to put its own house in order.” This becomes a somewhat technical discussion regarding the nature of minor planets in the outer solar system. Read on in the full transcript here.

Picture Credit: IAU/Lars Holm Nielsen

Previous posts on Pluto
Campaign for Pluto gathers pace
Rory’s call to action
Scared Pluto, but still so brave
Planets cry too

Nauru accedes to market forces

Following its accession to the Geneva Conventions in July, Nauru has made another leap into modernity.

The tiny island-nation “has told Australia it will have to pay a world record visa charge of more than $1.2 million a year” to keep refugee, Mohammed Sagar, in detention there. This follows Nauru’s recent announcement of a new system of visa charges for refugees detained on the island on Australia’s behalf. Charges for seven Burmese asylum seekers who arrived in Nauru last month are $2000 each for the first 90 days, increasing by $500 every subsequent 30 days.

In Mr Sagar’s case, “Nauru Foreign Minister David Adeang says the new visa fee is intended to encourage the Federal Government to find a solution for Mohammed Sagar, 30, who was rescued during the ‘children overboard’ episode five years ago next Tuesday.” Mr Adeang is adamant that the exhorbitant charges in Mr Sagar’s case are being levied “for humanitarian reasons”.

It’s really quite astounding, when one thinks about it, to see the pointy end of market forces deployed so purposefully. And apparently altruistically.

Unfortunately for Australian ‘policy makers’, there just aren’t that many failed-states in the region that can accommodate Australian policy requirements in quite the way that Nauru is willing and able to do. It’s a detainers’ market out there.

All the myriad ways

The following is based on remarks I made in another forum a bit over a year ago. It elicited zero response then. Perhaps deservedly so but, well, here ’tis again...

What a pretty pass we’ve come to. In the 22 August 2005 edition of The Australian, in an article headed “Wanted: A strongman to hold Iraq together”, Neil Clark, tutor in history and politics at Oxford Tutorial College in England, writes:

... [Saddam’s] removal from power was a colossal error. Rather than working for regime change, the US, Britain and Australia should instead have been collaborating with the Iraqi leader and acknowledging the key role secular Baathist regimes such as his had to play in the Middle East as bulwarks against a resurgent Islamic fundamentalism. After all, this was the West’s policy up until the first Gulf War in 1991. Why couldn’t it have been so again?

... To many, the idea that Iraq, under Saddam, was the least-worst scenario for both the West and the Iraqi people may seem depressing and defeatist. But 2½ years since his statue was toppled in central Baghdad, the evidence to the contrary is hardly convincing.

A brief glance at the calendar confirmed this was not an April 1st hoax. Gads, a serious consideration of an alternative non-military solution involving hitherto unspeakable collaboration with the genocidal arch-villain, Saddam Hussein. Could the old bastard have been rehabilitated from ‘embodiment of evil’ to ‘trusted ally’ (where he began)?

It’s hard to credit, but then proponents of the war didn’t want to see happen what now (as at August 2005) appears likely: an Iraqi constitution enshrining Sharia law and “the abolition of the Personal Status Law, which for five decades has protected the rights of Iraqi women in matters of marriage, divorce and custody”. Least of all was it envisaged that an Islamic republic might be in control of the world’s second largest oil reserves.

So let’s just for a moment consider the scenario proposed by Clark...

Saddam Hussein, instead of being vilified and militarily toppled from power – with tens of thousands of his subjects brutally ‘taken out’ in his stead – is coaxed and cajoled back into the Western sphere of influence. The Baathist regime, instead of being isolated and its very existence threatened from within and without, is no longer to be driven into the position of being a cornered shithouse rat, with all the associated behavioural traits. Consequently, the regime perceives less of a need for a pervasive and crushing security apparatus, let alone that chimeric human shredding machine.

Saddam’s Iraq becomes amenable to Western pressure towards improving its human rights performance (assuming this was thought to be desirable by Washington and London, pre-1991 practices notwithstanding). Humanitarian improvements are tied to measures such as reconstruction aid and trade privileges within and beyond the region. These and other measures are UNSC mandated and have the support of General Assembly resolutions.

A general flowering of Iraqi civil society ensues, with moderate Baathist officials increasing in influence and power. Saddam and his cronies are persuaded to be pensioned off (generously, I fear, but it’d have to be a comprehensive bribe), clearing the way for a civil society-led remaking of the Iraqi political landscape.

A decade or so down the track, the Iraqi authorities pursue the extradition of Saddam from Jordan, where he is now living in a typically palatial residence under the protection of King Abdulla (son of Saddam’s buddy, the late King Hussein), for crimes against humanity during his rule. After several years of proceedings and counter-proceedings, Saddam dies, a broken though still very wealthy man, in his bed of prostate cancer.

And, wow, tens of thousands of more people alive than dead. And, gee, no dispersion of DU particulates in urban areas. And, strewth, the Iraqi economy still under Iraqi control.

You may s-a-a-y I’m a dreamer... But is this scenario any less likely than a quick and easy victory, with flowers strewn before the invading armoured personnel carriers, and the establishment of LA in Mesopotamia?

On reflection, I have to say that this alternative scenario probably could never have happened. The reality is that a free Iraq was always way down on the list of priorities.

Incidental footnote: George W Bush, having failed to find another Satan, became a one-term president following his 2004 election loss. His mate, John, still got across the line on bulldust and interest rates.

Hornet analogy posited

A commenter on Tim Blair’s thread dealing with Shankar Vedantam’s ‘hindsight bias’ piece has devised a really neat analogy with which to frame the Iraq debacle:

I like to think of the terrorism in Iraq like this:

Iraq was a hornet’s nest. America and her allies came and poked the nest with a stick.

The problem isn’t that the nest was poked. The problem is that the nest was full of hornets.

Posted by scooper on 2006 10 03 at 01:58 AM

I think I’m getting this: Terrorists are like hornets. As such, they tend to collect in hornets’ nest-like places such as Iraq. Therefore, it behooves tough little yobs with big sticks to poke said sticks into said nests, and...

Where does crap like that come from? It’s too tempting to see that kind of thinking as an atavism of someone who sadly spent a large slice of their childhood performing wanton and arbitrary acts of violence, like poking hornet’s nests with sticks.

More broadly, this kind of thing demonstrates a more general principle: That expressions of clueless desperation, such as Vedantam’s piece, inexorably elicit further expressions of clueless desperation, in ever descending blurts of stupidity and irrelevance.

Apology: I take this opportunity to express my regret at having wasted my time and yours, dear reader, by giving all this more than a moment’s consideration,

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Hindsight blindness

Following recent dire assessments regarding the Iraq war, some who opposed the invasion apparently are now delighting in telling supporters of the war, “I told you so...”

But the Washington Post’s Shankar Vedantam argues that it “isn’t quite true” that opponents of the war knew it would all end in tears. Rather, he attributes this anti-war ‘triumphalism’ to a phenomenon known as hindsight bias.

Citing some academics in support, Vedantam observes: “The hindsight bias plays an important role in public debate, because it gives people a false sense of certainty. When people convince themselves that they knew something would happen, what they effectively ignore is how much that outcome may have been unpredictable.”

While some in the pro-war camp have welcomed Vedantam’s supposed debunking of anti-war triumphalists, the implications of the discussion of predictions and outcomes will most likely elude them. I predict that they will effectively ignore that, whereas opponents of the war perhaps weren’t as right as they think they were, the war’s supporters were much less right than even were the ‘naysayers’.

If the present disastrous outcome could not have been entirely predicted, then what does that say about predictions of a quick and easy victory, with flowers strewn before the invading armoured personnel carriers, and the establishment of LA in Mesopotamia?

Will the pro-war mob modify their own assumptions and biases?

Is Bismarck a herring?

Tuesday book reading

The following would have to be one of the most provocative opening passages ever!

This book is a description of the Omega Point Theory, which is a testable physical theory for an omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent God who will one day in the far future resurrect every single one of us to live forever in an abode which is in all essentials the Judeo-Christian Heaven. Every single term in the theory – for example, “omnipresent”, “omniscient”, “omnipotent”, “resurrection (spiritual) body”, Heaven – will be introduced as pure physical concepts. In this book I shall make no appeal, anywhere, to revelation. I shall appeal instead to the solid results of modern physical science; the only appeal will be to the reader’s reason. I shall describe the physical mechanism of the universal resurrection. I shall show exactly how physics will permit the resurrection to eternal life of everyone who has lived, is living, and will live. I shall show exactly why this power to resurrect which modern physics allows will actually exist in the far future, and why it will in fact be used. If any reader has lost a loved one, or is afraid of death, modern physics says: “Be comforted, you and they shall live again.”

This is a very readable book – apart from the mathematical excursions, which can be skimmed over by non-technical readers without detracting too much from a fascinating exposition.

I have to say, however, that Tipler’s argument seemed to this reader less than convincing. Indeed, it seems more an exercise in wish fulfillment on the part of the author. Tipler, a professor in mathematics, is the proverbial son of a preacher-man, and is forthright in asserting his Judeo-Christian beliefs.

A summary of Tipler’s Omega Point Theory can be read here from his homepage.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Hard sell, soft sell

A flyer was recently stuffed in our letter box advertising the sale of a local property. The heading brought an ironic smile to my face. I’m still trying to work out whether it’s an example of diabolically clever marketing or stoic desperation.

Much Better Than What You Think

Walk to station, bus & shops from this bargain priced one bedroom unit. Comprising kitchen/meals, lounge plus own back yard and car space. Vacant possession available, however it does show an outstanding rental history.

The asking price is $139,000.

Strewth!! About thirteen years ago we paid significantly less for a house not far from this unit – on a standard block, with four bedrooms plus study, lounge plus family (rumpus) room, a garage, carport and garden shed, etc.