Thursday, August 21, 2003


Sneke David Morgan, who is a bit of a conduct mark (uncouth language and letting down the tone of St Custards), have found this pastiche (Fr hem-hem) of Nigel Molesworth and Harry Potter. There go any novelty in the next instalment of the "Potemkin Museem of Anteek Humour" series.

* A chiz is a swiz or a swindle as any fule kno.

Single Mother gets 3 Years for Welfare Electoral Fraud

Martyr my spotty red arse.

Appalling People I've Known

For a while, I've been thinking of attempting an inspirational piece along the lines of one of those Reader's Digest stories about the most remarkable person (or animal) that the author has ever known. My personal favourite in the genre was one about a black goldfish that lost both eyes in a violent pond brawl, but nonetheless managed to live a life of independence and dignity with a little help from his faithful guide guppy.

Alright, the guide guppy is artistic licence on my part but RD really did publish such a story sometime back in the sixties. If the author had known that the biggest bundle of nerves inside your average fish's head is its olfactory bulb I doubt that little Pop-Eye the blind Bubble Eye would have attained fame (however briefly) as an example of courage in adversity.

It should be obvious by now that this isn't going to be an inspirational piece - I obviously don't have what it takes to write one. So you'll just have to settle for a cautionary tale.

Every Thursday was Religious Instruction and Sports day at Greenfields High School, where I got my six years of secondary schooling. One hour of Religious Instruction (RI) in the mornings, two hours of Sport, or truancy, in the afternoons. Roman Catholics got RI in a normal classroom; the rest of us, Protestants of no fixed denomination, would troop down to the school hall for a lesson from the Reverend Duncan Donald*.

The Reverend Donald was the Minister of the local Presbyterian church. He had a strong speaking voice, which he could project all the way from the stage to the back of the hall and slam dunk into the basketball net. This was largely wasted, as the hall was never more than a third full: Forms 1 and 2 got their dose of RI in the first period of the day, Forms 3 and 4 in the second. Before I reached Form 5 there was also a third period for forms 5 and 6 but, thanks to events that happened early in my 5th year of High School, compulsory RI, at least for the upper Forms, was abandoned.

With so many students in the hall, there was little room for class participation; instead, the Reverend Donald would take to the headmaster's lectern (presented by the school's Ladies' Auxiliary the year before I started there) as if it were a pulpit and deliver a fairly traditional sermon. I can still bring the gist of one or two to mind.

The sermon on Commandment Number Five, "Thou shalt honour thy mother and father" was one of a short series of sermons on a selection from the Ten Commandments that the reverend Donald considered most relevant to impressionable twelve and thirteen year olds: from memory, the series included Number One, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me"; Number Two "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth" was probably skipped, in deference to the need to avoid sectarian division within the school's student body, and of course Number Seven "Thou shalt not commit adultery" was obviously irrelevant to a group of early teenagers whose hormones had not yet propelled them into the temptation to fornication, let alone graver sexual sins. Number Ten "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's." got a guernsey too (with a seemly emphasis on the real estate and livestock, rather than the wife, the maidservant and the manservant).

Reverend Donald illustrated his sermon with a short fable, allegedly traditional Chinese, of a married couple who had a live in elderly father (or father in law). Thanks to senile dementia, Pop's table manners became a little less than exemplary and the couple found it convenient to construct a pig trough so, at family meal times, when the rest of the family (father mother and young son) were eating at the table, Grandpa was put in a corner of the room, feeding himself by hand out of his trough. This went on until Dad found his son out in the woodshed one day, constructing two brand new pig troughs, for when he and Mum got old.

But, said the Reverend Donald, in a climax of hair-splitting triumph, this fable misses the point of the commandment, which is not "Thou shalt not dishonor thy father and mother" but "Thou shalt honour thy father and mother." And so to the second part of the sermon, on how children should honour their parents; the details of this part didn't stick in memory nearly so well, but doubtless included the sort of cheerful obedience we used to faithfully promise in primary school when we were reciting that "I will honour the flag" malarkey.

On another occasion, the Reverend Donald decided to broaden the scope of the Religious Instruction lesson by inviting a guest speaker. He had picked up on the fact that, thanks in part to a rash of 1950s science fiction films on television (Earth Versus the Flying Saucers, It Came From Outer Space, The Day the Earth Stood Still and others of that ilk), the subject of UFOs was enjoying one of its frequent faddish revivals. The Reverend Donald made it pretty clear that he considered UFOs a silly superstition but, in a spirit of open-mindedness, he offered to invite along a friend of his who did believe in UFOs, had studied them intensively, and had constructed his own theory to explain them.

The promised UFO expert turned up the following week; he was perhaps a few years older than the Reverend Donald. He was more than happy to share his UFO theory of everything with us, but he didn't make much headway. His credibility was sadly undermined by the dishevelment of his grooming and dress; in contrast to the Reverend Donald's impeccably pressed and buttoned up three piece mid-gray suit, Bill the UFO bloke's suit had obviously not seen an iron in several years, his shirt tail appeared to have a claustrophobic aversion to the inside of his trousers and his shirt appeared to be short of enough buttons to hide his singlet.

Some students, a little more observant than I noticed that his trousers also suffered a shortage of fly buttons, but no-one missed the fact that he had made a mess of buttoning on his braces. His ideas turned out to be as disarrayed as his appearance so, while the Reverend Donald's stern gaze was sufficient to keep the giggling of the second formers to a more or less courteous level during Bill's speech, after the bell rang for the next class, there was an eruption of hilarity as we walked from the hall back to the main school buildings.

The demise of compulsory Religious Instruction started with a trivial incident; the Reverend Donald decided to experiment with class participation in his lesson to the senior school. He began the class with a diatribe about the woeful lack of Biblical knowledge and understanding in the younger generation. He then pointed to Chris, one of the Form's clown princes and demanded "You there! What are the first three words in the Bible?"

"In the beginning." Chris replied.

"No you fool." Donald thundered. "They're 'In the beginning'!"

He then went on to his sermon, a fairly standard piece about how the words "In the beginning" mean literally "In the beginning" and that questions about what God was doing before the beginning were nonsensical (repeating, I think, Martin Luther's joke about how God spent his time pre-creation stocking up on switches to cane those who asked silly theological questions).

There was a lot of comment on Donald's conduct on the way from RI to the next class, not much of it favourable. You don't mess with a school's clown princes, self-appointed or otherwise. From that day on it was open season on the Reverend Donald.

The next major confrontation happened after the ABC screened the Hanna-Barbera animated version of George Orwell's Animal Farm. Donald was a staunch anti-Communist. After asking who in the class had seen the film that Sunday: a lot of hands went up. Donald said that the film showed how people had the right to rebel against communism. Slim, the other clown prince, put up his hand.

"Yes boy, what is it?" Donald asked.

"Sir, in the film, the animals rebelled against capitalism and set up communism. Like in the book." Slim answered.

"That's not the point!" Donald sputtered. "Anyway, at the end of the film they overthrew communism too."

"But not the book, sir."

Of course, that wasn't the point either. By the end of this lesson, the official fifth form consensus was that Donald was a laughing stock. His next class was memorable mainly for the open derision of the mob. It pushed the Reverend Donald to his fatal utterance; frustrated with the hoots of derisive adolescent laughter that greeted his every statement, he shouted "For God's Sake!" There was a shocked silence, followed immediately by loud jeering laughter and Donald completed his humiliation with an abashed display of incoherent back-peddling: "No, not for his sake, for your sakes ..."

It was clear that the Reverend Donald could no longer control the class; for a couple of weeks order, of a kind, was maintained by having a couple of the school's regular teachers present during his classes. While this helped maintain discipline, it also gave them a chance to see the Reverend Donald in action and to see how poorly regarded his class was. This low opinion wasn't confined to the school's emerging atheists and agnostics; it was shared by quite a few of the school's Christian students as well.

Obviously it became a serious issue for the school, because one morning we were given forms to take home to our parents: if they consented, those of us who wanted it could have a period of private study (and definitely not truancy) instead of RI on Thursday. I decided to play it safe: the forgery of my mother's signature that I put on that form was the finest I ever produced. Looking back, I suspect that I would have done just as well with a large "X" and the inscription "Ma Trotsky her mark."

* - All names have been changed to protect innocent and guilty alike.

Update: After seeing an excerpt from this post over at Troppo Armadillo, I've done a quick edit to fix up some shaky paragraphing and remove a redundant phrase. I should have gone on to that fourth draft after all.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Bang on the Drum (71)

Blog commentator and Albrechtsen Bingo addict dj will no doubt be thrilled by Janet's column in today's Oz. It marks a welcome return to form for Australia's foremost Berkean Conservative.

Commenting on ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope's plans to introduce a Bill of Rights for the ACT, Janet begins:

KEEPING up with the Joneses in the world community is a familiar strategy when activists push for law reform.

It worked last year. The Howard Government signed on to that legal leviathan, the International Criminal Court, because other nations had done the same. That same mentality is now pressing Australia to jump aboard the bill of rights bandwagon.

Before we do, let us throw down the gauntlet and test the mettle of those seeking a bill of rights. Rather than just catch up with the rest of the so-called sophisticated world with a copy-cat bill of rights, let us propose something even more sophisticated.

Given that rights carry obligations, let us recognise that in law, with not just a bill of rights as the US has, or a Charter of Rights and Freedoms as in Canada. Let us lead the world with a fashion first – a bill of rights and obligations.
[Original emphasis]

Janet goes on to enumerate the results we can expect from a bill of rights which bestows sophistication on a nation by shifting power from the parliament to the courts; once the ACT, "that peculiar enclave encircled by reality" has a bill of rights, it won't be long before Canberra's naturist community sues the ACT government for the right to emancipate themselves on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. Looking to a number of overseas examples of rights gone wrong, Janet declares:

... rights are like rabbits. They breed quickly. Before you know it you have a constitutional right to procreate – as a Californian prison inmate claimed a few years ago. He wanted a doctor to come to his cell, collect his sperm and impregnate his wife. An American court agreed ...

You have to admit, that's a pretty damning indictment of how an out-of-touch legal system can turn a Bill of Rights into legal farce. It looks like a really great "only in America" story, until you get to the last sentence of the paragraph:

... Fortunately sanity prevailed when an appeals court rejected any such constitutional right to procreate.

Now for some more examples of Bill of Rights driven craziness and stupidity:

But elsewhere courts are hardly prophylactic institutions when it comes to interpreting a bill of rights ...

Yes, it's time for some examples of Humna Rights silliness from coutries outside the US. For a start, there's the US:

... As US award-winning columnist Charles Krauthammer noted, in a few short years, the US Supreme Court has cemented into law abortion on demand, racial preferences and gay rights – the "liberal trifecta", he says, "just about their entire social agenda, save shutting down the Fox News Channel".

But Janet quickly recovers from this false start, and in quick succession, gives us examples from the UK, Canada and New Zealand. We're now ready to deal with the subject of judicial activism:

Of course, activists pushing a bill of rights eagerly promote judicial activism because it is uncanny how judges, with a penchant for power and a disdain for the common man, tend to share the same Left-leaning world view.

All this we know. The really exciting question ... is how the
[ACT] will fare on the other side of the ledger – on the obligations side. That depends on how we frame the obligations. They should be written in the same ethereal language of rights. And if rights breed freely, we can only hope that obligations will too.

There's the rub: how will the lefty agitators for a Bill of Rights, or, more generally, better human rights protection in Australia, cope with an activist judiciary with a brief to impose obligations (mutual and otherwise) on the citizenry? Demonstrating how difficult it is to keep your tongue in your cheek while grinding your teeth, Janet makes a valiant attempt at satire:

What about an obligation to support yourself where possible? After all, someone has to pay tax to pay for the right to free education and a high quality health system. What about an obligation to take responsibility and pay for your own mistakes so that there is enough money for those in genuine need of compensation? And what about an obligation to care for your children and raise them as responsible law-abiding citizens? An obligation to save for your own retirement might also be in order.

After this short sally, Janet clearly recognises that irony is not her forte, and gives us an earnest finish, calling for an obligation driven revival of conservative values (and gives us a glimpse of her underlying authoritarianism in the process):

Rather than encouraging a generation of professional takers with an old-fashioned bill of rights, let us encourage a generation of professional givers. Let us change the one-way rights-driven traffic and offer an alternative agenda of obligations.

Let's be truly avant-garde and give conservatives on the bench something to work with so they too can engineer a better world. This is not a frivolous exercise. It might flush out the not-so-true-believers. Will supporters of a bill of rights be quite so supportive of conservative activist judges who play policymaker with a long shopping list of fine-sounding obligations?

This novel experiment in our nation's capital might prompt the activists to recall that, as has often been said, the unrestrained power to do good is inevitably an unrestrained power to do bad.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Blog Gossip

Benito of benality has taken himself off to Honiara. Dare I suggest that this blog has just become a "must read" for anyone looking for an on-the-ground view of Australia's involvement in the Solomon Islands?

Monday, August 18, 2003

Portent of Summer

I've just spotted a blowie on the bathroom window. Is this a record?

A Physics Exercise for the Lead-Footed: Solution

Determining the height of the building Larry would have to throw the child from, in order to inflict injuries comparable to those caused by hitting it with a half tonne vehicle at 60 kph, is a relatively simple problem, which can be solved easily by anyone with a knowledge of high school physics (circa 1971). The simplest solution involves 2 stages:

Stage 1. Calculate the kinetic energy of Larry's car at the time it strikes the child. This is given by the equation:

Ek = 0.5mv2

Before we calculate this quantity, it is convenient to perform the following conversions:

60 kph = 60,000/3600 = 16.67 m/sec
0.5 tonne = 500 kg

substituting these values into the equation for kinetic energy gives the result:

Ek = 0.5 * 500 * 16.672
i.e Ek = 69440 kg m2/sec2

Of this, according to our assumptions, at most 6944 kg m2/sec2 is transferred to the child in the collision, causing injury to the child.

Stage 2. Calculate the distance that the child would have to fall under the influence of gravity to acquire this much kinetic energy. This can be done using the work equation:

w = Fd

which we re-arrange (with one substitution), to give:

d = Ek/F

A body falling under the influence of gravity experiences a force (F) of 9.8 kg m/sec2 for each kilogram of mass. With this piece of information it is easy to calculate d:

d = 6944/(9.8 * 20) = 35m

Finally, dividing this result by 5 gives the answer to our question: Larry would have to throw the child of a building at least 7 storeys tall to produce injuries as serious as those caused by the collision.

Note: As the kinetic energy of the car varies with the square of its speed, halving the speed of the car will the height of the building by a factor of 4, to 8.75 metres or approximately 2 stories. Similarly, Larry need only increase his speed to 85 kph to inflict injuries equivalent to throwing the child off a 14 storey building.

Sunday, August 17, 2003

Working Class Origins

Yesterday was the 184th anniversary of The Peterloo Massacre. Family legend has it that a Trotsky ancestor was on the the platform at this ill-fated popular meeting but, sadly, all the available historical and geneological evidence is against it.

Predictions and Speculations

Last Thursday, Ken Parish asked (apropos the Manildra scandal) whether the current Howard Government was "Australia's Worst Government". Ken appears to be firmly of the opinion that John Howard's conduct towards Manildra and its competitors qualifies as the probably the worst abuse of public office by an Australian Prime Minister ever and I'm hard put to find an example to surpass it myself. John Quiggin has also extended on his remarks on the ethanol brouhaha, under the very frank title "Corruption".

Nonetheless, prominent blog commentator and occasional blogger Jack Strocchi, over at Catallaxy confidently predicts that John Howard will ride to victory in the next election, in a troika drawn by the three horses of Political Security, Economic (or Professional Prosperity) and Personal Identity and has pledged himself to put aside his personal misgivings about the more sordid aspects of the Howard agenda, in recognition of the fact that John Howard, for all his faults, has done right by Australia, especially in effecting a much needed shift of the political centre to the right; it's what the (completely unanalysed) situation called for.

It seems to me that Jack, like a lot of other commentators on the Manildra affair and the current state of the Howard government is ignoring the straight guy at the Mardi Gras parade: Treasurer and self-appointed Minister for Trust and Tolerance Peter Costello. Now might be a good time to recall Costello's statement of June 4 regarding his leadership aspirations, after John Howard confirmed that he, rather than Costello, would be leading the Liberal Party to the next election. Personally, I wouldn't be too confident about predicting who is going to be driving the Liberal Party policy troika come the next election. Nor would I have a lot of confidence that the driver will be holding the reins for very long after the election.