Saturday, February 08, 2003

More on "l33t gm haxors?"

Friday, 7 February 2003

The downside of having a comments facility is that you often discover that no-one is anywhere near being half as interested in your current hobby-horse as you are. The upside is that occasionally someone drops in and leaves a comment which leads you to another interesting blog. Here are a couple: firstly (and long overdue) Boynton, for those times when all the heavy political stuff is too hard to take. Secondly, Scott Martens' Pedantry. Scott has provided a long comment on my l33t gm haxors? post, with a link to this interesting bucketing of the bad science involved in genetic engineering. He's also covered the topic, in more depth than I, in this blog. It's tempting to skip the social commentary and start in on the science - on the other hand there's no reason why I shouldn't do both occasionally.

Friday, February 07, 2003

l33t gm haxors?

Friday, 7 February 2003

How do you convince people that genetic modification (GM) is a good thing? Richard Dawkins evidently believes that you do it by telling them that the opponents of GM are luddites who don't get it but that their children probably will. Genes, he says, are just like software subroutines so, although there are a lot of Luddites whose gut hostility to GM is based on ignorance, their children, who understand computer software much better than their parents, will easily recognise the resemblance and welcome it.

Dawkins develops his argument with the analogy of a rocket guidance system developed by lifting sub-routines from (say) a financial spreadsheet program. If the rocket guidance system needs a sub-routine that calculates square roots and the financial package has one, why not just lift it from the latter and paste it into the former? A square root is a square root is a square root after all. Dawkins admits that this analogy is a little unfair: suppose the routine to be lifted comes close to doing what the guidance system requires, but isn't quite right. All we need do then is to tweak the routine a little. And we can do the same with genes.

At this point, experienced computer programmers might note that Dawkins' doesn't understand computer programming as well as he understands genetics.

It's unlikely that a rocket guidance system would be written in the casual way that he suggests. However, a lot of other software has been. Especially on the Internet. If you're building a reel kewl website for the Nar-Nar-Goon Chapter of the Satanic Knights of Death Metal and Quake Arena with a message board and other kewl stuff, there are plenty of places where you can find free CGI stuff. In a few months, when the site goes irretrievably pear-shaped, it won't be your fault: it will be the fault of the idiot who wrote the form to E-Mail script and those bastards in the Perl newsgroup who keep saying "RTFM" when you ask how to fix it.

My generation isn't without fault here either: many of us have wreaked havoc on corporate IT budgets with the help of certain Windows based programming tools, encouraged by the attitude that professionalism means being paid a lot of money and wearing a suit to work.

Considering this, Dawkins' casual assurance that GM isn't very different to computer programming is more a case for Luddism, rather than a case against. I doubt that he is seriously suggesting that GM is going to be applied as carelessly and ineptly as the creation of the website of the N-N-GCSKDMQA but, if he is, I'm with the Luddites.

Thursday, February 06, 2003

Technical Problems

Thursday, 6 February 2003

I agree with Ken. Haloscan is sucking harder than a Dyson today, so it's pretty much comment at your own risk. At the slight risk of a rapid influx of derogatory e-mail, use the "Contact the Crew" link instead. That at least is reliable, although I may not be when it comes to responding (sometimes I forget these things).

Update (Friday, 7 February): Haloscan appears to be back on line, give or take one or two lost comments.

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

The Whackiest Little Constitutional Monarchy in the West

Wednesday, 5 February 2003

(Part 2 of my "just war" series. Part 1 is here).

Before I start on the issue of proper authority in this personal inquiry into whether a war on Iraq would be a just war it's important to state an important reservation about this criterion. It can be best expressed by posing the question, do the people of Iraq have the "proper authority" to engage in a civil war to overthrow Saddam Hussein? This is quite separate from the question of whether they have just cause (to which the answer is an unqualified yes): the question is concerned very specifically with the conduct of politics (in this case by revolutionary means) and who is entitled to make the decision to take a nation, or group of nations, to war. In the case of a civil war or insurrection, there is an obvious problem if we define "proper authority" so narrowly as to rule out revolution when it is the only means to get rid of an oppressive government. We cannot avoid the difficulties this presents by making an arbitrary distinction between the hypothetical Iraqi revolution and a declaration of war between states: if proper authority is an issue in the first case, it remains in issue in the second.

So it's tempting to dispense with considering whether a war on Iraq is "properly authorised" or at least put it into the too hard basket to be considered at some indeterminate future date. This temptation is especially strong now that Parliament is sitting and there has been some opportunity for the issues to be debated there: any question of "proper authority" in the Australian context appears to be moot in the current circumstances. But here I'm getting ahead of myself. First we need to be clear on what questions we'll be addressing under the head of proper authority.

There are only two: one is the question of whether the US and its allies can be considered to be acting with proper authority if they act without UN sanction, the other is whether the Australian government can be considered to have acted with proper authority in its actions in support of the US so far. On the first question, 76% of the Australian public says no, but to rely on the opinion polling is to make a lazy argument or not to make an argument at all. At issue is where the proper authority resides if it does not reside in the UN. And does it reside in the UN in the first place?


The US position on the UN (and eo ipso John Howard's position) is that the UN's authority in this issue, and on future issues of world politics, will be compromised, possibly fatally, if the Security Council does not come up with a resolution which satisfies "our" requirement for firm action to deal with disarming Saddam Hussein. The UN is in a lose-lose situation: if the Security Council does not deliver a resolution which satisfies the US, its authority is compromised. If it does deliver such a resolution its independence is compromised in the eyes of other states. In either case, US and Australian policy and conduct has made it clear that the UN's authority depends on it doing the right thing. So proper authority has been transferred somewhere else the most likely location being 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Leaving aside the mystery of who has proper authority to disarm rogue states (fundamentally this question is now unanswerable), let's move to the issue of domestic decision making. Much of what I originally intended to say on this subject has been overtaken by events in Parliament but there's still a lot that remains relevant with an effort to bring it up to date.

In the case of the US, it's clear that George Bush does have the proper authority to take his nation to war, if that is what is required to achieve the US' strategic objectives in Iraq. He has been authorised to exercise the President's war powers by the US Congress (unless my memory of the Congressional debate on the subject is a confabulation). There is a stark contrast here with the way John Howard has pursued his policy on Iraq and the way that policy has been put into effect.

John Howard is not a President: he is a Prime Minister. Unlike George Bush, who exercises executive power by right of his office, John Howard does so firstly with the agreement of Cabinet and secondly by consent of Parliament. In practical terms, the consent of Parliament belongs to whoever has the majority in the House of Representatives however this should not distract us from the constitutional and political basis of Prime Ministerial authority. John Howard was not elected Prime Minister by the electorate, the Liberal party was elected into Government with John Howard as their leader. Although it has become a commonplace of Australian politics that elections have become a presidential style contest between the leaders of the two major parties it would be muddle-headed to believe that the office of Prime Minister is equivalent to the office of US President. From John Howard's behaviour on the issue of Iraq one could be forgiven for concluding that he has become a little muddle-headed.


Howard's political strategy on Iraq is to insist that in taking us to war he will be doing the right thing and attempt to draw public opinion along with him. Public opinion, as usual, means the opinion polls and possibly the Sydney talk-back radio audiences. I don't need Ken Parish to tell me that the Australian Constitution makes no provision for any authority - executive, legislative or judicial - to be vested in the Morgan Gallup Polls or Saulwick Age Poll organisations or in Sydney radio station 2UE. As Ken has noted in Declaring War the power to declare war is vested in the executive through section 61 of the Constitution which transfers the royal prerogative to the executive and section 68 which makes the Governor-General commander in chief of the armed forces. Ken has also covered Australia's history of involvement in war, starting with World War 1. From the point of view of democratic process, it's a poor record: two wars entered by default (both World Wars) as a consequence of England declaring war and a number of police actions (such as the Korean war) entered without a formal declaration of war at all. What Australia lacks, in political practice, is experience in conducting Parliamentary debate on the decision to deploy military forces.

When there is bipartisan support for the deployment - as happened in the first Gulf War in 1991 and in the deployment of troops to East Timor, this may not be seen as a serious issue. It may be seen as a case of Parliament rubber-stamping an executive decision. However even then, oppositions might have valid concerns about the manner in which a deployment (or to use the current vogue term "pre-deployment") is carried out. Responding to Bob Hawke's announcement in Parliament of his government's decision to send ships of the RAN to the Persian Gulf, then opposition leader John Hewson said:

... we have been concerned at some of the processes whereby the Government has determined its response to this crisis. The Opposition believes that the prospects for building a national consensus on this decision would have been enhanced if the Government had seen fit to consult the Opposition on it. The Government has not consulted the Opposition once on Australia's response since the crisis arose; nor has the Prime Minister been in touch with me informally. I regret that this has been the case because I believe that it makes it more difficult to build on this issue the bipartisanship which the Opposition wants to promote. [my emphasis]


As a naive democrat, I believe there is more at stake here than building bipartisan or broad public support for government-determined military action. The fundamental question is that of the relationship between the citizen and government. When Parliament is divided on an issue as important as the use of military force and when public opinion is reluctant to see it used it is crucial that every effort be made to arrive at a decision which will be accepted as a legitimate exercise of government authority. This is not achieved by a back-door pre-deployment followed by a round of the spin-doctors: it is achieved by a resolution of Parliament.

If the 1999 Republic referendum had not left us as a "constitutional monarchy" this situation would be bizarre. Howard's way of taking us towards a possible war relies either on the arbitrary exercise of the royal prerogative transferred to the Executive under Section 61 of the Constitution or the command in chief of the armed forces under Section 68. It may be an impeccably conservative approach but it is not a democratic one - and no amount of pulling us along after the event will make up for that. We have been presented with the paradox of a democratically elected government acting in the manner of an absolute monarch, in a country where the role of the monarch is generally considered symbolic and ceremonial. L'Etat c'est le Premier Ministre.
- *** -

Confusion Reigns

Wednesday, 5 February 2003

After checking out the Oz today, I can't resist taking time out from writing episode 2 of my just war series to comment on today's article by my favourite hero-columnist. It begins thus:

FORGET Iraq for a moment. Australia would not commit troops to a war just because the UN told us to. We would decide the case for war ourselves. Come back to Iraq. The logic is strangely different. The Australian's Newspoll yesterday revealed that most Australians will blindly defer to the UN. Seventy-five per cent agree that Saddam Hussein is hiding weapons of mass destruction. Sixty-five per cent say he is a threat to global security. We all know that Hussein is in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. Hans Blix told us last week. Yet 76 per cent of Australians don't support a war without UN approval.

Got that? Australia wouldn't commit troops to a war because the UN told us to - we'd decide the case for ourselves. As we are doing with Iraq, where the debate is (in part) over whether we should go as allies of the US or wait for the UN to sanction military action against Iraq. I'm not sure, but I get the impression that the author thinks that the UN security council might dob us in for a nasty bit of peacekeeping that none of the other nations in the world playground are willing to touch. If that happened, apparently most Australians would (grudgingly) accept that we have to take on the job because it came from the UN, although there might be a bit of whinging along the lines of "How come New Zealand never gets picked to do this shit?" How do we know this? Because 76 per cent of Australians don't support going off to do our global yard duty without UN approval. More, perhaps, a case of "Why should we do this shit if no-one else wants it done?"

There's a lot in the middle about the history and charter of the UN, and Robert Menzies' recognition in 1950 that it was basically a flawed body. You can read that for yourselves - I'm going to cut to the chase:

The UN has a useful role in humanitarian work, peacekeeping (once others have created a peace to keep) and providing a forum to exchange views. But it can't guarantee world peace. The UN's prevarication over Iraq shows how it can hardly become more than its members permit. Yet still most Australians defer to the UN. Go figure.

Tough call, isn't it? My guess is that those 76 per cent of Australians aren't rapt in the idea of unilateral action against Iraq on the basis of a questionable justification. Are they deferring to the UN or unwilling to defer completely to the US? Maybe this is the way we choose to maintain our belief that we live in an independent nation.

Recent Reading

Wednesday, 5 February 2003

Candide by Voltaire and Rasselas by Doc Johnson. The latter is in a second-hand "Everyman's Library" edition with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto and William Beckford's (who?) Vathek (what?) Candide's main virtue is that (on a first reading at least) it's very funny. Rasselas' major virtue is that (on any reading) it's short. On the principle that a good book will be as much a pleasure to read on the second and subsequent readings as the first, I suppose that makes Rasselas the better work.

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

Another Meddlesome Priest

Tuesday, 4 February 2003 (Day 53 - last day of counting)

Archbishop George Pell is not an Anglican (he belongs to that other church), so it's understandable that he might choose to ignore hero-columnist Janet Albrechtsen's call to Australia's Anglican clergy to revive the centuries old just war doctrine. Here's what he has to say in today's Australian. He's applied the centuries old tradition of just war theory (he dates it back to the 5th Century pre-Anglican St Augustine) and come to the conclusion that

... the public evidence is as yet insufficient to justify going to war, especially without the backing of the UN Security Council.