Saturday, November 30, 2002

The Big Day, Later Still

Saturday, 30 November 2002 8:00 PM

As usual, election night has turned into a social event and I'm blogging this from a friend's place, where we're watching the impeccably left-leaning ABC television coverage of the election results. At the last count the results were:

Primary votes:

ALP: 48.3%
Liberal: 34.5%
Nationals: 4.2%
Other: 13.1%

Two Party Preferred:

ALP: 58.3% (up 8.1%)
Liberal: 41.7%

Legislative Assembly Seats Won:

ALP: 58
Liberal: 16
Nationals: 7
Other: 2

I'm hopeful that the two others are independents and not Christian Democrats, members of the CEC or someone equally noxious. On the results so far, it looks like the last problem the Liberal Party is likely to have is with resentful backbenchers fuming over their exclusion from the shadow cabinet.

Update: It's 9:18 PM and the ABC's Anthony Green has just announced that Labor looks set to win a majority in the upper house too. I'm not sure how reliable the prediction is: his leftie computer program appears to be giving a little trouble at the moment.

The Big Day, A Little Later

Saturday, 30 November 2002

I'm back from the polling booth and a little embarassed to report that the ballot paper for the Victorian Legislative Council is pink, while the Legislative Assembly paper is white. This creates a bit of a problem with my previous post on the election: should I do a Mike Moore and delete it or is there a better way to deal with the faux pas. Right now I'm more inclined to emulate my intellectual heroine Janet Albrechtsen and declare very firmly that if the facts don't support my opinions then the facts have some serious explaining to do. So there. I plan to write to the Victorian Electoral Commission demanding an explanation of this disgraceful affair, just as soon as I've done that Google search so that I can at least protect myself from making a greater fool of myself than I already have.

The party advertising around the booth was interesting. The Liberal Party have hung up banners with the memorable slogan (well it is if you repeat it to yourself at least three times - I really should have taken a pen and paper to write it down):

Vote for your local Liberal candidate to keep Labor under control.

This approach was roundly criticised by some senior Victorian Liberals earlier in the week as sending the wrong message - and it does. It sounds a lot like a desperate party making a last ditch effort to salvage defeat from the slavering jaws of humiliation. I wasn't impressed by the Labor message either:

Bracks. Listens, Acts.

It's much pithier but to my cynical ears that word "Acts" makes it sound like we're in for 3 years of a Reagan style premiership where form is more important than substance. Of course there are some who will say that this is what we've already got and I'm not going to disagree with them.

No doubt both of these slogans have been passed by those modern arbiters of good taste and sound political opinion, the focus groups so no doubt they reflect the aspirations of the people, or at least that small segment of it that is prepared to cop fifty dollars in the kitty for an hour of free association on such matters of weight as what do you want in a panty liner. I have to admit that I was never any good at focus groups, so perhaps the only reason I'm underwhelmed by the way the democratic process is being run these days is a deep seated resentment of those who know how to get themselves repeat invitations from the market researchers.

And however much my error on the subject of the Legislative Council might compromise any claims I might make that I can provide objective and informed commentary on this issue, I'll probably do the election post-mortem anyway. I'll only be following well established and well respected precedents in doing so.

At Last, the Big Day

Saturday, 30 November 2002

It's polling day here in Victoria, and soon I'll be off to the local primary school to perform my civic duty of defacing my ballot paper. Of course I shall only be defacing the one ballot paper, for the Legislative Assembly, the Victorian Parliament's lower house. In all the times that I have voted at state elections, I can't remember once being given two ballot papers so I have no idea what the Legislative Council's ballot paper looks like. We all know (if only vaguely) that there is some minimum property holding which is required to be eligible to vote for the Legislative Council and some time today I plan to do a Google search to find out why I am not considered a fit and proper person to vote in upper house elections.

Once the voting's out of the way, I might start work on my election post-mortem blog: I've already got a good idea of what I want to write and like any of the great op-ed writers in our papers, the only real use I have for any facts that might emerge in the counting of the votes is to confirm my existing opinions on what went wrong for the Liberal Party. I've already got my hypotheses, which I know are completely correct, it's just a matter of waiting for the data to confirm them. If the data doesn't turn out quite right, well I can always result to a little creative analysis and exclude any embarassing outliers and exceptions. That is the way it's done if you're writing for our national newspaper isn't it? While I'm only a humble blogger, I think it's a good idea sometimes to remember that there are well established standards for public commentary and that emulating the world best practice established elsewhere is a good way to improve my own meagre commentary.

Friday, November 29, 2002

You'd Better not Cry ...

Friday, 29 November 2002

James Russell of Hot Buttered Death links to this article which shows the widespread bi-partisan support for Santa. Maybe we should amend the constitution to make him our permanent head of state. And John Howard has already written his letter to Santa.

In my E-mail today, the 50% of my regular correspondents who lives in Adelaide, Darren, told me a little of his own childhood experience with Santa:

Y'know, I had a very similar experience with my parents and I never did quite understand why they felt it necessary to make up stories about leaving food for some fat old man from the North Pole. I think at age 4 or 5 I had decided there was something strange about a fat man being able to get into our house without our knowing.

If anything, the political correctness is that one must believe in Santa - you are not allowd to tell your children that Santa doesn't exist (because they may tell other kids) and you are *certainly* not allowed to tell kids that Santa is a figment of an advertising executive's imagination.

I think he's got a point on the political correctness thing. But then I'm cynical enough to believe that the Soldier Settler scheme was an exercise in social engineering.

You'd Better not Pout ...

Friday, 29 November 2002

Parental Advisory: this post includes information which may shatter your children's precious illusions.

Prime Minister John Howard has kicked off the Christmas season , by sending a seasonal message to the slaves of political correctness who wish to ban, or replace Santa, in childcare centre and primary school Christmas celebrations with something more to their taste, such as a clown in the traditional red nose and fright wig get-up, rather than a pretend sot with a false beard in the traditional red suit. Speaking of this move by several kindergartens and child care centres:

Mr Howard said the move was ridiculous and said believing in Santa was one of the wonderful things about childhood.

"I do believe in Santa," he told Melbourne radio 3AW.

"I'm no longer a child but I believed in Santa when I was a kid ... so therefore I believe in Santa."

"That (the ban) is absolutely ridiculous and can I say that any childcare centre, any kindergarten, that does that is being foolishly slavish to political correctness."

There certainly is something wonderful about believing in Santa as a child and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. It's a good way to turn working class kids into lefties, if nothing else. For some reason, working class kids only ever get visits from the really stingy Tooth Fairies, the crappiest eggs in the Easter Bunny's basket and the cheapest toys in Santa's voluminous sack. I have a memory (I hope it's a memory and not a confabulation) of asking my mother once why this was (at least in relation to Santa) and she told me that actually, the stuff that Santa brought was paid for by my parents. This sounded a little weird to me and the following year my grandmother was allowed to let me in on the truth, which was a lot more acceptable, in my view, than the previous explanation for the fact that some kids got ponies for Christmas and I got the Meccano number 3 set, which was that they had been better behaved than I throughout the preceding year. It's no wonder the rich get so far up themselves, when we think it's just a piece of harmless whimsy to promote this sort of thinking.

So I don't have any problem with the idea of kindergartens and child-care centres replacing Santa. Some kindergartens and centres have probably been getting by without him for years anyway - for example the Jewish ones. Although I suppose if they're going to avoid charges of political correctness, they might have to adopt him like the rest of us idiots. And a big Bah Humbug to everyone.

Thursday, November 28, 2002

My Favourite Misconceptions About Evolution

Thursday, 28 November 2002

There's a debate going on at the moment (or at least there was this morning) in one of John Quiggin's comment threads about Janet Albrechtsen's article in yesterday's Oz. It's gotten into the the area of the relationship between IQ and social status (always a good topic for controversy) and the relationship of 'Darwinian thought' to politics. I think it might be useful to clear up a few misconceptions about evolution, even if in the end, they turn out to be my own.

As I said in the comments thread, the theory of evolution isn't exactly rocket science, but it's not entirely simple either. Most of the difficulties arise from carelessness in the way evolution is described as a process, plus a few confusions that arise from the use of intentional language (the kind we use to speak about people and their motivations) and misinterpretation of the phrase "survival of the fittest". Once again, blogger limitations have required that I post this as a two parter.

Evolution is purposive.
We may as well get this one out of the way first up, because it's the biggest and most of the others in some way are derived from it. On this view, human beings and other organisms are the way they are because this is the way nature "intended" them to be. Wrong: this is the way we turned out to be. Evolution is a natural process: it's no more purposive than a tile falling off your roof. It's just something that happens.

Evolution is benign benevolent.
Closely related to the first misconception is the Panglossian view that evolution is, in the long run, beneficial because it creates organisms that are fitted to their environment. Wrong: evolution happens because some individuals in any population are less fitted to their environment than others and die before they reproduce. Change the environment and the balance of adaptive advantage may change, favouring those who were formerly the less fitted of the population. Or no individuals may be sufficiently adapted to the new conditions to survive and reproduce and the species becomes extinct.
Every trait of an individual is in some way adaptive.
Pretty Well Wrong: evolution is messy - it depends on genetic variations in the population which for all intents and purposes can be treated as random. A lot of stuff gets "left in" organisms because while it doesn't do any good, it doesn't do any harm either, at least in terms of the evolutionary game, which is to live long enough to reproduce. This is why we have wisdom teeth, those veins around the anus that turn into haemorrhoids in later life and (sometimes) heritable genetic diseases. They don't make a difference in evolutionary terms because they're not usually enough to kill you before you have kids.

Evolution is driven by competition between individuals to be the fittest.
Half wrong: looking at the social behaviour of humans and other animals we can see patterns of competition and co-operation between individuals. For example, within the wolf pack, wolves compete for the positions of alpha male and alpha female because these members of the pack have the mating privileges. On the other hand, wolves co-operate when they hunt. In the human pack, we compete for status in various ways but we have well developed forms of social co-operation as well. Evolutionary fitness is rarely as simple as light moths get eaten, dark moths don't or aggressive tigers live, cowardly tigers die.

So there's the eminently fiskable Gummo Trotsky take on evolution. I hope it goes some way towards explaining my beef with explanations of social phenomena, such as income and class differences, in terms of biology: even if it's via the indirect route of correlations between income and IQ. To complete the picture we need to take a look at IQ testing and statistical correlation. I'm saving that for later.

Preparing for the Last Election

Thursday, 28 November 2002

The Federal ALP has released its border protection strategy. Announcing Labor's plans for an expanded coatguard on AM yesterday, Simon Crean, The NSW Right's current knife-rack-in-waiting said (repeatedly) that Australia's border protection required "a cop on the beat".

It's an unfortunate turn of phrase: it conjures up images of hundreds of CG Plods, up to their balls in the East Timor Sea, trying to fend off people smugglers, drug traffickers and trepang poachers with their trusty truncheons. Or maybe that's just me - and you too, now that you've read that last sentence. Demonstrating their usual talent for stating the blindingly obvious:

The Federal Government has hit back at the Opposition's plans, accusing it of recycling its failed coastguard policy from the last election.

Defence experts are lukewarm too, most believing that keeping our new coastguard in Speedos and waterproof whistles might divert resources from the budgets of other defence agencies, such as the navy, which as we all know from yesterday needs some extra readies to upgrade the Collins class submarines to a more state-of-the-art obsolescence.

Meanwhile, on the domestic policy front ... Well that's the problem really isn't it? Does the federal ALP have any domestic policies, apart from Mark Latham's grand design to return Australia to the glory days of Arthur Calwell?

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Coming soon, to Your City

Wednesday, 27 November 2002

I'm not really a religious person, but after finding this I might get down on bended knees and say "Thank you God for the Pacific Ocean."

Scientific Fundamentalism?

Wednesday, 27 November 2002

After roughly a month of regular blogging, with the web-surfing it frequently entails, I've concluded that there is such a thing as scientific fundamentalism which is every bit as bad as the religious variety. The basic credo of this belief is that science deals with facts, not consensus or personal opinion, and that every scientific question must be determined exclusively by the facts (or at least the facts as the author asserts them to be).

The whole thing is based on a simplistic and slightly dodgy view of science and a romanticised scientific history which is presented in terms of great heroes of the intellect, such as Copernicus, Newton and then Einstein sweeping away the discredited misconceptions of the past and replacing them with something closer to the truth. And, so we are told or encouraged to assume, this is exactly the way scientists behave today. They are lofty, idealistic (and slightly eccentric) figures, whose main passion in life is to find the Truth about the real world - or at least some small part of it in their preferred research specialisation.

The trouble starts when science gets entangled - as it frequently does - in matters of politics and public policy. Then we start to see the ugly facets of scientific fundamentalism, such as:

  • The elusive slide from the premise "the facts don't support your case" to the conclusion "the facts show that you are wrong".

  • Arguments that conservationist or precautionary policy proposals are "anti-scientific" or "anti-progress", because the current known facts don't support the proposed policy. This argument has been used in the past to oppose a ban on the use of CFCs (nobody could know for sure that they damaged the ozone layer), controls on pesticide use (nobody could know for sure that they caused damage to predators higher up the food chain than the insects they were supposed to kill) and for all I know to support the use of antibiotics as a growth promoter in animal husbandry. The long-term results have been pretty crappy in each case.

  • Selective application of scientific principles. Just as the religious fundamentalist is careful in his reading of holy writ to select the passages which support his view, the scientific fundamentalist is quite happy to insist upon scientific propriety when it suits his case and abandon it completely when it does not. This behaviour does have a name, one that is generally avoided in polite society.

Finally, if you're expecting a punchline, this time there isn't one.

The Price of What?

Wednesday, 27 November 2002

Janet Albrechtsen blogs in the Oz today on the dangers of Australian political life and culture becoming too Europeanised. Janet warns:

AUSTRALIA'S tendency to swoon over European-style sophistication requires constant vigilance.

Personally, I think this fight is lost: the Gaggia replaced the Massey Ferguson as our main technological icon years ago. As for the rest of the article, where Janet belabours the collectively dumb who want to tear down the individually talented, I really can't be bothered. It's one of those false dichotomies where the gap between the two extremes is so wide you could drive a truck through it. Or a Massey Fergusson tractor, come to think of it.

Just Don't Fire the Thing

Wednesday, 27 November 2002

It's funny where the mind goes when you wake up to ABC news in the morning. Listening to a report that the Navy's Collins class submarines are causing another political ruckus - this time over the fact that re-equipping them to take new, heavier US manufactured torpedoes is going to cost an additional $200 million dollars over the $250 million budgeted to buy the torpedoes - reminded me of a little story I read in a footnote in a book on the international arms trade. Like my copy of Hymns Ancient and Modern it's somewhere in storage, so I can't look it up to give you the citation details. For all you know I could be making this all up and I'll have to ask you to take the veracity of this story on trust. It's certainly absurd enough to be true.

It seems that around the turn of the 20th century in the late 19th century, the tiny European country of Liechtenstein Andorra decided to upgrade their defence capabilities, as we say nowadays. To this end they bought a new cannon for their artillery corps from the German armament manufacturers, Krupps. It was a damn fine state of the art cannon and the artillery corps were no doubt very pleased with it. Unfortunately, they were never able to actually do any training with live rounds: the cannon's range was greater than the length of the country from one end to the other, and any test firing would have amounted to an act of war against either Austria France or Switzerland Spain, depending on where the shell landed. The history of defence spending is full of these little curiosities.

Update: I tracked down the book: it's called The War Business by George Thayer. As you can see, this resulted in a few necessary corrections.

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

No Keith, It's Just Growing Old

Tuesday, 26 November 2002

Ken Parish has blogged on this profile of Keith Windschuttle, author of a refutationist history of white settlement in Australia. I was particularly taken with Keith's remark that:

In the '70s I was a Marxist, in the '80s I was a social democrat and in the '90s I'm a conservative: it's called growing up.

It's fairly common to hear this sort of remark from committed conservatives who used to be committed leftists in their youth. For some reason, the progression from doctrinaire Marxism to an equally doctrinaire Toryism is always depicted as a normal process of personal maturation, with the implication that those who haven't made this intellectual journey by the time they reach middle age are probably suffering from arrested development.

It's certainly true that personal values, tastes and opinions can change over a lifetime: for example, ABC Radio, which in my youth played the sort of boring old fart music my parents liked, now plays the sort of boring old fart music that I like, which in some cases, is the same boring old fart music my parents liked thirty years ago. And listening to radio talk back, I often hear callers of approximately my generation expressing opinions which, if expressed by their parents in the 1960s, would probably have sent them into paroxysms of adolescent rebellion.

So I can understand how Keith Windschuttle has come to revise his opinions on many issues as he has aged: but I'm not sure that he should congratulate himself on growing up. To exchange one set of intellectual foes for another, without a little opening of the mind in the interim can hardly be called maturation.

Intercepted Mail (Part 1)

Tuesday, 26 November 2002

This is a longer post than I usually make, so I'm resorting to the workaround of posting it in two parts, to fit within blogger limitations.

Prime Minister John Howard has responded to Brian Deegan in this open letter in today's Oz. It's a thoughtful considered response, so I shall attempt to abandon my customary flippancy in commenting on the letter.

After expressing his sympathy for Mr Deegan, Mr Howard gives his explanation of the Bali bombings:

He died at the hands of a murderous group of Islamic fanatics who despise the liberal democratic, open life of Western nations, such as Australia. He died because there are people in the world who believe that indiscriminate violent murder is a justifiable political instrument.

Later he goes on to say:

You are right in saying that boys of your son's age are always the ones to go to war. It has sadly ever been thus. That is why peaceful resolution of differences should always be sought.

Ignoring terrorism, however, will not make it disappear.

History is strewn with examples of countries not taking a stand on something in the hope that the problem would go away, only to find that, at an infinitely greater cost, that challenge must ultimately be confronted.

The favourite historical example of this sort of thing is the rise of Nazi Germany and the Second World War. And this is where I'm getting a little uncomfortable with the parallels, because there are some obvious contrasts as well.

Intercepted Mail (Part 2)

Tuesday, 26 November 2002

In the present situation, popular culture is firmly on the side of the Prime Minister's view: in its hunt for suitable villains after the end of the cold war, Hollywood quickly settled on terrorists of various stripes as suitably evil targets for Arnie and Bruce and Harrison. This is very different from the situation in Europe in the 1930s: Hitler's anti-semitism was a virulent thing, but there was also a widespread "respectable" form of anti-Semitism (reflected in the popular fiction of the time) not just in Germany, but in other societies, including England. As well as the appeasers who thought that Hitler might just go away if ignored, there were plenty of English writers at the time who felt that generally speaking, he had the right idea. Even his anti-semitism was considered basically sound, if a little extreme.

There is a parallel with the current situation and it's an unpleasant one: the War on Terrorism is breeding a climate of popular prejudice where our attention is so focused on our hatred of our enemy that we might ignore the murderous fanatics on our side, who are equally contemptuous of the liberal democratic open life of Western nations. Some of our chauvinists are already headed in that direction. And there's more than a whiff of "indiscriminate violent murder" about the tired military euphemism collateral damage.

In the current climate, a lot of commentators appear to have thrown their moral compasses overboard. There are some who justify our prospective involvement in a war with Iraq becuase it is necessary to maintain the US alliance: in other words, we have to "make our bones" with the US. Others have suggested that we give up on the Indonesian government, who are plainly having difficulty in coming to terms with democracy and start rebuilding good relations with the Indonesian condottieri. These over-reactions and arguments of convenience are every bit as dangerous as hoping the problem will go away.

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid

Tuseday, 26 November 2002

This is the basic message for Victorians from both sides of the current contest between Australia's most photogenic policy vacuum and Mr Robert Doyle. Steve Bracks proposes to calm our fears of international terrorism with new police powers along the lines of those already mooted for New South Wales, while Mr Doyle believes that we need to be equally concerned about those enemies of freedom and enterprise that have always lurked in our midst, the trade unions.

Unfortunately for Mr Doyle, his latest scare campaign has backfired with a few corporations saying that claims that they were put off setting up in Victoria by the state's industrial relations environment are quite simply untrue. Six major companies have demanded that their names be removed from the ads.

Meanwhile, the debate on substantive issues of policy remains so totally vacuous that it's no longer safe to walk along Spring Street unless you're wearing a space suit. In Victoria, no one can hear you scream.

Monday, November 25, 2002

Self Help

Monday, 25 November 2002

Following John Quiggin's link to his article in On-Line Opinion, ultimately led me to one of the many self-help resources available on the web. It brought about a shocking confrontation with my own deep personality flaws, so I have decided to begin my recovery program immediately.

Hello, I'm Gummo Trotsky and I'm a narcissist. Personally, I don't have a problem with that.

Going a Few Better than Kerry

Monday, 25 November 2002

John Quiggin, comments today on this report in Australian IT that the government intends deferring any further sale of Telstra shares another 12 months. John suggests that, as the Government believes that Telstra can't remain "half-pregnant" forever, it's time for them to bite the bullet and renationalise.

I doubt that the government will adopt this suggestion but if they do, at Telstra's current market valuation, it will give the lie to Kerry Packer's famous remark (after he bought the Channel Nine Network back from Alan Bond for much less than Bondie had paid to buy it from Kerry) that "You only get one Alan Bond in your life." Whether Abraham Lincoln's famous maxim on the credulity of the electorate would be similarly tested is open to question.

Show Trials? Not in this Country

Monday, 25 November 2002

Yesterday's Age featured this article by Roger Franklin on controversy surrounding Linda Fairstein "America's foremost prosecutor of crimes of sexual assault and domestic violence". And also a best selling author who knows how to look fetching in a black raincoat, without being too vulgar about it.

The basic allegation against Ms Fairstein is that, like many a tall poppy, her roots are firmly planted in very old fashioned organic fertiliser. Ms Fairstein built her successful career as both prosecutor and novelist on her successful prosecution of the "Central Park Jogger" case: but the confession of Mathias Reyes "a career mugger, convicted murderer and serial rapist" and DNA evidence casts doubt on the conviction. According to Franklin's report, Fairstein knew about the DNA evidence at the time of the trial, but chose to suppress it.

Nor is that the end of Fairstein's problems. Thanks to the reopening of the jogger case, at least two of her other celebrated prosecutions are being re-examined. In each, the same pattern emerges: suppressed evidence, selective leaks to doting reporters, and threats directed at potential witnesses who might have raised reasonable doubts.

According to Newsday Ms Fairstein has said that she has no regrets about the case: and with a successful career as a prosecutor and best-selling author, one can understand her position. After all, every author is allowed a little artistic license from time to time and as Harold Robbins frequently remarked, in the end, the true measure of literary merit is all in the money. Sometimes, art requires us to make sacrifices and Ms Fairstein is obviously well aware of this.

No Comment

No, really, I mean it, no comment.