Saturday, March 22, 2003

Filling the Skip (2)

Saturday, 22 March 2002

Another grab-bag of ideas that I haven't found much use for.

Why does the opening sequence of David Puttnam's Chariots of Fire remind me of the opening sequence of Leni Reifenstahl's Olympia? Why did Commodus' return to Rome in Gladiator remind me of Triumph of the Will? Why do certain sequences in the first Star Wars trilogy do the same? Why does the final shot of the film version of Ayne Rand's The Fountainhead remind me of Russian "Social Realist" art? Where can I get hold of a copy of Jude Suss, so I can make a comparison of the protrayal of Suss with the depiction of various ethnic groups in Hollywood actioners?

Now that I've finally seen Steven Spielberg's AI, I'm looking forward to the release of the Critic's cut which will, I hope, spare us the last 20 minutes of the film where Spielberg completely bottled out. There are better ways to end a film than thrashing out a heavy-metal power riff on the audience's heartstrings. Next time, Steve, just smash the fucking camera.

On John Howard's Address to the Nation: typical of our PM to be the last leader in the Coalition of the Willing (as distinct from the somewhat larger Coalition of Approving Rubberneckers) to pick up on the idea that it's easier to make a cogent moral case for the war if you're willing to make a clear distinction between a country and the regime which you're trying to remove from it. In fact, his frequent references to Iraq made it quite clear that he still hadn't got it at all.

Further remark on Crean and the increased threat of terrorism: I forgot to introduce [that paragraph by saying] that it's the worst form of scare-mongering. Now I'm stuck with saying that it's the worst form of scare-mongering too, which doesn't say much for my priorities. This is what a lapse of attention can cost you.

Why do so many people get confused between bad ideas that work for them and good ideas? Why do so many dismiss ideas that are really quite simple but difficult to understand as too complex? Why do they resent anyone who understands either better than they?

And, believe it or not, there's even more of this shit to come.

Filling the Skip (1)

Saturday, 22 March 2002

Here are a few, more or less offensive, ideas to get this weekend's intellectual housecleaning started. First some trite "memes" that I'm heartily sick of. Starting with the word "meme" - what's wrong with the word "idea"?

The World changed [irrevocably] on September 11. It didn't. What changed was western perceptions of the world: for most of the world's population, life on the edge of starvation, dying slowly of AIDS and all the rest of what passes for normal life went on pretty much as usual. Crediting Osama Bin Laden and the Bali bombers with changing the world is giving too much credit to the idea that the most effective way to achieve political change is with high explosive. There are already too many people who believe this - why encourage others to join them?

History repeats itself. It doesn't. We repeat history, mostly by ignoring the events in our national and personal histories that don't fit with our preferred vision of ourselves as basically decent people. We are (for the most part at least) basically decent people, but let's not kid ourselves that we're perfect - or that our enemies (whoever they happen to be at the moment) are so much worse than us that our own faults don't really matter.

Voice(s) of reason. I know that this is convenient shorthand for "People who are intelligent enough to agree with me" but, all the same, I'd rather hear it spelled out. That way we all know where we stand.

Simon Crean should shut the hell up about the increased danger of terrorist attacks on Australians flowing from our involvement in the war in Iraq. Unless he's planning to roll over and play dead on the Government's ASIO Bill, he's pretty much painted himself into a corner from which he (at least) won't be able to mount a credible case against the Bill when it's finally debated in Parliament.

It's probably too much to hope that next time someone wants to make a moral case for war on a brutal and barbaric regime by giving us examples of the imaginitive new ways the regime has found to torture its enemies, that they will put in the hard yards and actually tell us what forms of torture they are prepared to consider humane and civilised. Would Saddam Hussein's regime have been acceptable if his thugs had restricted themselves to forcing parents to watch while their kids were thumped around with the Baghdad Yellow Pages? Thought not.

More garbage posts to come.

Friday, March 21, 2003

Hard Rubbish Collection

Friday, 21 March 2003

When I first read the Yobbo's comment on this post, my first inclination was to zip over to Haloscan and ban him for irritating and unconscionable earnestness. He may be relieved to know that he he's been given a reprieve, largely because he's inspired me to make my own, highly subjective, list of phrases and other uses of language that I've found objectionable (on the other hand it's more likely that he won't give a shit). While I'm at it, I've decided that I might as well do some intellectual housekeeping over the weekend and throw out a few other ideas that I've had kicking around for a while. Mainly they're topics I've been thinking about posting on but for one reason or another haven't managed to get anything down on hard disk. Once they're out of the way, I can get on with other things. Anyone who wants to pick one or two of them up and run away with them is welcome to do so.

In the meantime, here are some interesting items from other Oz bloggers. Bargarz found this article from BBC News inspiring. It is. It's also reassuring to think that the troops will be treating the enemy with more respect than the Pringles munching victory monkeys who are no doubt busily recycling those old jokes about Italian courage into "new" jokes about Iraqi courage even as I write.

Ken Parish finds reassurance from an unlikely source - some remarks of Donald Rumsfeld. And, via John Quiggin, there's Geoff Kitney on Question Time from the SMH.

Less interesting have been the various attempts by more stridently pro-war bloggers to maintain the fiction that Australians are, finally, solidly behind this war. For the [record], Monday's Newspoll found 68% of Australians still opposed a war without UN sanction. Today's Morgan Gallup Poll shows that there is now a slight majority of Australians, [a little over 50%], in favour of US action in Iraq, but the position on Australia's involvement is more evenly divided and less favourable: 46.5% for and 48.5% against. The fact that the war has been a walkover so far has probably helped shift opinion. Expect things to change if it gets nasty.

Finally, a special cheerio to the opportunistic Bible-toting arsehole who popped around, totally uninvited, this morning to offer some friendly advice on coping with the state of the world. Don't bother calling again. If the day comes that I decide to get evangelised, I'll be moving to Sydney, where they know how to do it properly.


Friday, 21 March 2003

Machiavelli's rules for the nobles of Renaissance Italy are still relevant to the twentieth century managers, just as Newton's laws of gravity will always retain their validity.

Auren Uris, 101 of the Greatest Ideas in Management, cited in Graeme Davison's The Use and Abuse of Australian History (footnote 17 to chapter 12 (p 233)). By way of comment I'll just add five words: Einstein's Theory of General Relativity.

Thursday, March 20, 2003

Baghdad Blues

Thursday, 20 March 2003

I've spent most of today in a state approaching mental paralysis. It's been coming on since Monday. There are too many topics to blog on today. The biggest of course is that the war in Iraq is finally underway and there have been plenty of events since noon (Melbourne time) that invite comment that I'm not yet ready to write. Most of that comment has already been provided, in part at least, elsewhere. My list of candidate blog topics started with George Bush's letter to the US Congress, providing his justifications for going to war. Tim Dunlop tips a much-deserved bucket on it here. Gary Sauer-Thompson has anticipated my post on John Howard's total failure to convince the majority of the Australian people that this war is right. Right now, my belief is that expecting us to trust in the moral convictions of a chronic liar and self-righteous humbug finally turned out to be too much of an ask.

James Russell asks:

Now that the warbloggers have pretty much got the war they were looking for, what will they write about?

He'll find one answer at Tim Blair's site: it's not too different to blogging the Melbourne Formula One Grand Prix as it happens.

Another topic that I won't be writing much about today is John Howard's address to the nation. I caught a part of it on radio: Howard's attempts at a soothing tone reminded me of an old BBC radio show called "Listen with Mother" which the presenter always began with the words "Are you sitting comfortably? Good, then I shall begin." I was also reminded of Sir William MacMahon, unsung architect of Gough Whitlam's 1972 election victory - all that was missing was Macmahon's querulous tremolo.

Finally, there's the Federal Government's decision to reintroduce its ASIO Bill to Parliament today. The debate on the Bill should be interesting to say the least: Simon Crean has said that our involvement in the war on Iraq increases the risk of terrorist attack on Australians: in his address John Howard said it will make no appreciable difference in the short term and in the long run will make us safer from terrorism. I might come back to this one tomorrow. On the other hand, I could wait till next Friday: I think we'll be seeing some excellent dummy spits over the next week or so.

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Dummy Spit of the Week

Wednesday, 19 March 2003

OK, so this item was supposed to appear on Monday, making it two days overdue. It's not exactly as if any of you bastards were any help - I gave you the opportunity for some serious reader interaction by nominating likely dummy spits and what do I get? A tediously earnest discussion of whether the Wog is a snob or not. Not good enough people.

First, an honourable mention to the Dean of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, Dr Philip Jensen. Inspired in part by the example of a Hindu student who, despite Jensen's offer to show him that Hinduism is wrong without attacking Hinduism, continued in his false religion due to family and tribal pressure, Dr Jensen mounted to the last bastion of free speech in Australia, the pulpit of Sydney Cathedral and took the sword of the Spirit to the benighted secularists. Verily did he smite them hip and thigh and they were vanquished in the sight of the Lord. Demonstrating commendable endurance and flexibility of mind, Jensen followed up with some interesting comments in an interview on ABC Radio's PM the following day:

The Bible says that he [Christ] did die. Now, I was not saying which of these was right, or which was wrong, but I was saying that you can't get rid of the category of right or wrong in this area, because they both can't be right.

JO MAZZOCCHI: Can you understand, though, how your comments could be interpreted as being quite insulting to other religions?

PHILLIP JENSEN: No, because I'm saying that Christians could be wrong. It may be that Jesus did not die, and is Islam is right.

I look forward to a future sermon from Dr Jensen where he develops the other leg of his argument: the consequences for the Sydney Diocese if Christians are wrong and Islam is right.

This week's winner comes from the world of international diplomacy. Well done France, for adapting the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive self-defence to create the Chirac doctrine of the pre-emptive security council veto.

Nominations are again open for the next Dummy Spit of the Week, which I have decided to move to the end of the week for obvious reasons. Nominations close Friday 28 March, assuming that you lot are prepared to pull your socks up and lift your game. Otherwise, you'll just have a lot of gallows humour to put up with. This is your last chance gentle readers: don't blow it.

She Agrees With Them and I Agree With ...

Wednesday, 19 March 2003

If you passed over this post by Ken Parish yesterday, you might have missed this article in the Australian, where a group of international lawyers argue that an attack on Iraq is legal. Ken has expressed doubts about their argument, basically on the grounds that whatever they are talking about, it's not law as he understands the term.

I almost found myself in agreement with Ken, at least on his point that whatever a UN Security Council resolution might be it isn't international law. But today, once again in the Australian, I found this heroic article which puts the legal case for war with a great deal of force and originality. So, faced with a choice between the opinion of a sometimes opinionated Australian legal academic at a minor commercial college, who doesn't appear to be forward thinking enough to recognise that the way of the future in legal education is combined degrees in Physical Education and Law and the opinion of my favourite hero-columnist, I know which way I'm going to decide. I'm probably going to cop some stick for saying that. It's unfortunate that Haloscan has fallen over yet again because Ken will just have to dish it out on his own blog rather than doing it here.

Update: No, Haloscan is back again.

R*d* W**ds

Wednesday, 19 March 2003

This morning, a client asked whether we could provide an obscenity filter for a chat forum. You know, one of those software routines that detects typos in words like spit, duck and count and renders the results as @#%! or something similar. This isn't a difficult programming task but it does raise some interesting issues.

From a technical point of view, there's not much to an obscenity filter - all it has to do is search text input for specific sequences of characters and replace them with whatever sequence of dingbats you're using to indicate that the user has entered a dysphemism. In Perl, for example, you can do the job with a single line of code:

$nice_text =~ s/$nasty_word/\@\#\%\!/gi

The interesting part is identifying all the possible values of the variable $nasty_word. Sticking with the example of Perl code, do you use a constant regular expression, hard-coded into your script or do you use an external data file, where users can add new obscenities as they identify them? If you take the first approach, you're stuck with breaking the first rule of polite programming, which is never include offensive material in your source code. If you take the second, you're going to end up with an external text file or database table of obscene epithets which, if your organisation is infested with Mrs Grundy types, will have to be kept a closely guarded (and undocumented) secret within the IT department, lest someone get the wrong idea about the general character of the technical staff.

In the end, writing a successful obscenity filter boils down to human and organisational factors: you need programmers who are able to swear like an old matelot with Korsokov's syndrome. And with imagination. Otherwise, the filter is going to produce output which includes strings like mother@#%!er, or the somewhat ambiguous @#%!-licker which is either Mark Latham's favourite synonym for Prime Minister or something other than Mark Latham's favourite synonym for Prime Minister.

I suspect that somewhere in the English speaking world there's a programmer who has written the ultimate obscenity filtering routine. Of course, we'll never see it in commercial use - I don't think you'll have any trouble working out why.

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Lighting the Powder Train

Tuesday, 18 March 2003

So care needs to be taken when employing military force: the powder train can run very quickly and in the most unexpected directions. (Nigel Bagnall, The Punic Wars)

Here's how a people who are free to be proud of their country and heritage, free to realise themselves as individuals, and free to pursue their hopes and ideals, who value excellence as well as fairness and independence as dearly as mateship, go to war.

At 6.00 am your Prime Minister gets a telephone call from the President of the world's only remaining superpower with the long anticipated formal request for a little more involvement in the coming conflict than a mere "pre-deployment". In between finishing the call and heading into a cabinet meeting, your PM drops in to the ABC to give an interview about the phone call. Throughout, he valiantly maintains the fiction that the decision is not a foregone conclusion:

I indicated that Cabinet would meet again this morning, and Cabinet is meeting again this morning, at 8:30, to formally consider that request. We did, of course, talk in some detail about the whole issue last night and when Cabinet has taken a decision, that decision will be immediately communicated to the United States and of course to our military forces.

After the cabinet meeting, the PM briefs all Government MPs on the Cabinet decision then announces the decision publicly.

The Government strongly believes that the decision it's taken is right, it is legal, it is directed towards the protection of the Australian national interest, and [I] ask the Australian community to support it.

He also announces that Parliament will debate the issue this afternoon: once again, well after the critical decisions have been taken. In doing so, he is acting in accordance with the constitution and the precedent set by Mr R J Hawke when Mr Hawke involved Australia in the first Gulf War.

Doesn't it make you glad you live under a democratic and federal system of government which exists under law to preserve and protect all Australians in an equal dignity which may never be infringed by prejudice or fashion or ideology nor invoked against achievement?