Friday, March 31, 2006

World: How to save your brain

A new study in Nature magazine has shown that clever children have thicker brains rather than bigger brains. For less intelligent children, cortical thickness peaks at age 8, at which time it is thicker than smarter children. But then thickness decreases for average kids, and increases in smarter kids up to age 12.

The brain is a network of neurons. Implicit in the study is that the network is getting more complex when the cortex thickens. The number of neurons doesn’t change, but the number of connections between neurons does.

The researcher said the thinning was thought to be due to a “use-it-or-lose-it” strategy, where connections were pruned as the brain streamlined its operations. So exercising the brain stimulates the number of connections.

Children need stimulating, otherwise their brains “dumb down”.

The same is true at the other end. A New Scientist article (“Use it don’t lose it”, 17 December 2005) said exactly the same thing about older people. It described a retired university lecturer who was “intolerably good” at chess. He found he could no longer think eight moves ahead, only five. Tests designed to spot early dimentia didn’t reveal any problem. Yet after he died two years later, his brain was found to be “riddled with plaques and tangles, the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease”. This is an example of “cognitive reserve”, where people who lead intellectually stimulating lives are more protected from degeneration of the mind. They also recover better from “stroke, head injury, intoxication, and … neurotoxins”. Sounds like common sense, but it’s certainly surprising to hear someone can be riddled with Alzheimer’s and function well.

I guess you’re lucky if you’re the kind of person who enjoys being intellectually stimulated.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

World: History: the leaders don’t come off too well, but the rest are invisible

History looks so neat on paper, but we should know from our own tumultuous world that it’s a constant series of battles between disparate forces, with the outcome often rewritten.

History is the story of the leaders, with the masses only written in aggregate. If one of my ancestors* led a group of people to their doom, you wouldn’t hear about any of the rest of them. Over 99% of my ancestors and yours are unseen.

And when a brutal force crushes a city like a child treading on an ant colony, the dead leave no remainder; their line is snuffed out and even their DNA is invisible.

On paper, the succession of kings sounds so clearcut: oldest son, next in line, etc. But in the middle ages, this wasn’t the case, and it could be fifty years at a time between peaceful successions.

The wars between the houses of York and Lancaster (the War of the Roses, as Walter Scott called them) was certainly murky. Although it is portrayed as lasting from 1450 to 1485, England was already in turmoil from the Hundred Years war with France. Internal ructions lasted from 1399 (Richard II) up to Henry VII, the first Tudor king. Many named people were beheaded, and countless other killed.

Causes include:
1) Rule inherited by people too young to govern or to govern well (Richard II, Henry VI)
2) Richard II’s seizure of Lancastrian property because their wealth rivalled the king, who was relatively penurous;
3) Death of a king without a heir (Richard II)
4) Subsequent usurpation by Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV)
5) Death of Henry V when Henry VI was a baby and
6) Temporary madness of a king, Henry VI (common theme, isn’t it?)
7) Several deaths by dysentry of kings and heirs.

In the end, the only one left was Henry VII. A tenuous claim, several steps removed, through his mother. His grandfather was a Welsh squire, Owen Tudor, who came to the attention of Henry V’s French widow (and Owen’s future wife) by “collapsing on her lap when drunk”**. Owen was, in the fashion of the day, beheaded after a battle in 1461.

So, that’s why we get the Tudors and subsequent: last man standing. Funny old world, innit?

What do we learn from this?
Lack of good governance leads to chaos. We knew that. However, this refers to the quality of the leaders, of the laws, and of adherence to the laws.
Collapsing when drunk is not necessarily a bad thing? Well, I suggest that apart from a few exceptions, history wasn’t written by or about drunks.
Most people died relentlessly nameless, for other people’s causes (the men), or because they were ignored anyway (women).

Even the king needed to be subject to a legal framework, otherwise he’d divide the people from whom he relied for support. That’s a lesson for today.

*Hugh Courtenay of Boconnoc was not killed at the battle of Tewkesbury, 1471 (as it says on my family tree), but beheaded immediately afterwards, being on the losing Lancastrian side. I’d add another lesson. Beware of the glossing over of histories, including family histories.

**Neillands, Robin, The Wars of the Roses, Cassell, UK, 1992.

Also referenced:Haigh, Christopher (ed.), The Cambridge Historical Encyclopedia of Great Britain and Ireland, C.U.P, UK, 1985.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Tech: Open Source: secrets of the technically literate

A letter in the paper yesterday:

"Why are most computers still sold without Microsoft Office (Word, Excel,
etc.,) included in the price? It's like buying new trousers and then having
to have the zipper installed."

Why indeed? Doesn't everyone want Word and Excel? I know I do.Well actually, I want something that works like them, and is compatible with them. But I'd end up paying several hundred dollars extra for the privilege.

Whereas if I went to, I could download a free copy of OpenOffice, which is compatible with MS Office. I don't say fully compatible, because it's not identical to the Microsoft product. But it is very close. There are a few actions that are slightly different, but not enough to worry about.

Open Source is a remarkable trend. In a nutshell, Open Source software is developed collaboratively by a community of interested people. The source code (the guts of any software) is freely available to work with and modify. However, I think most people use open source software simply because it's free.

And it's free because of community. Oh, and I suspect Microsoft's global domination has something to do with it. There are two types of people in this world: (those who divide the world into two types of people, and those who don't. Oops, I mean:) those who are bolted-on Microsoft followers, and those who are doggedly resentful of MS's size and market muscle. (... and there's those who don't care, those who don't know, those who use what they have to,...)

The open source paradigm has been a surprise success over the past 5 - 10 years. It first gained prominence with Linux, the free operating system written by Linus Torvalds and based on Unix, a programmer's dream environment that predates Macintosh and real Windows (ie w95 and over) by about 15 and 25 years respectively. Various commercial organisations built up their business by providing their own distributions (distros) for free, but making money from support services after that.

In recent times, major computer vendors such as Sun and IBM have embraced the Open Source movement - again, I think, partly as a response to Microsoft.

It's even got to the point that Microsoft has made moves to make some of its product Open Source. Not its big moneyspinners such as Windows and Office, but lesser products that it may want to promote, or is not dominant in the market of, or that give it entree into more lucrative sales. I expect Microsoft to find Open Source profitable by applying the paradigm carefully.

I expect Open Source to be a serious threat to Microsoft. However, as the largest company in the world, I also expect them to be fully aware of this.

Meanwhile, the public benefits. But at this point in time, only those in the know. And that will not include most readers of the local paper. Yet again, those in the know get the benefit some time before the word spreads. However, it's still early days.

Interesting to note how long in the evolution of mass computers that this phenomenon appeared. Some 15-odd years later, Open Source is still somewhat of a secret.
Why did it emerge? Why at this point. Again I would point to the dominance of Microsoft as encouraging reaction. Maybe if the market was less monolithic, it would have taken longer for it to emerge. But the most important aspect of this story is that we are talking about (dispersed) communities of people, banding together for the common good. [likewise the Wiki phenomenon, discussed here before.]

The internet has suddenly enabled common interest communities to find each other, regardless of the limited appeal of the interest and dispersed nature of the community.

It's good to see a form of community burgeoning at a time when the anti-communal, individualistic values of capitalism are so thoroughly overtaking traditional, human values.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

World: If you don't want taxes, you're an anarchist and you need to participate more

Ben Franklin’s actual words were “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Who said: “That the Government has kept spending down has reduced the burden on workers”?

Well, although it’s only attributed to Treasurer Peter Costello [by the Herald’s subeditor], it’s exactly the sort of thing he’s said in the past.

Do you believe it? What’s he really talking about?

What he’s said is undoubtedly true for the well-off worker. The whole philosophy of reducing taxes is aimed at the well-off worker. The professional, the manager, the highest paid strata. But for those who rely on collective bargaining and decent governments for protection from the ravages of an employer whose legal obligation is specifically to its shareholders, all this “lower taxes” mantra so successfully marketed by the self-interest is simply lies.

Taxes provide government services. Do we want government services? I guess if you’re the sort of person that can afford private health care and private education, you may think you don’t need them, and can provide everything for yourself. But even if you are entirely self-interested, consider the case for early childhood intervention that I noted before. A government bent on reducing taxes to benefit the already well-off would find it totally beyond the pale to invest in long-term initiatives for which the payoff is, for example, decreased assault, murder, or property damage - or, at the other end of the scale, intrinsic to our entire survival, such as global environmental danger.

At the end of the piece, Peter Costello did say: “We are in a relentlessly competitive world and we should aim to have taxes and spending as low as possible consistent with the standard of health, education,defense and security that our public is justly entitled to receive”.

Another aspect of Costello’s message is that reducing taxes and working conditions encourages job growth. And it is quite true that studies have often shown that the best reduction in poverty comes with moving to employment. Yet that has been based on an Australian experience where we have traditionally had the protections not afforded by a country like the USA. More recent studies have shown an increase in the ‘working poor’ in Australia, consistent with the US experience. We will get to the point where employment in itself won’t be saviour from poverty. In fact, Costello is now crowing about this phenomenon:”A historical milestone was passed three years ago: government spending in Australia became lower than in the US”. (Of course, he wasn’t accounting for the onorous costs of hegemony!)
The new industrial relations laws (and recently-revealed regulations placed on top of them) will do nicely, indeed, to foster a working poor. The worst of both worlds.

This is actually rather different from the usual mantra, but in fact just what is meant by those who try to sell the whole of the public (not just their own sectional interests) on a very simple message.
Why did he add that caveat? Well, he is a politician, after all, and he’s angling not just for the next election, but for prime ministership. And he hasn’t, of course, defined what that standard is; his standard is guaranteed to differ from the government services needed in the west of Sydney, for example. I’ll leave aside health for the moment, as it is a complex issue where technology changes have greatly increased the demand for the dollar. But taking education as an example, all studies have consistently shown that under Costello’s watch, investment in education - the very core of a nation’s future - has dipped significantly. Hardly surprising for a government whose mantra is lower taxes.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Pers: Mission Statement: An act of clarity or vandalism?

Lucy Kellaway is a business commentator for the BBC and also writes for the Financial Times. She talks mainly about corporate behaviours, and is particularly ascerbic. She is wildly sceptical of management fads and corporate double speak. Always good value, and usually I agree with her. She sometimes throws the baby out with the bathwater, but she sparks healthy debate.

I'm not sure that she'd be completely happy with the concept of a mission statement, but I think it can provide clarity. On the other hand, it can vandalise in two ways:
a) It can be a waffly shelter for management to hide behind. In particular, it can be downright misleading, if it tries for a combined audience of management, workers, shareholders, regulators and public. Because those stakeholders tend to have strenuously competing interests. Beware.
b) It can tie down an endeavour to words that may ossify and hinder its progress.

Having said all that, here is my mission statement for this blog.

Mission Statement
I intend to record for posterity and debate noteworthy ideas that might otherwise be lost as ephemera.

In fact, that is not enough to describe this blog, so I’ll go into more detail.

I am fired by an urge to understand, to make sense of the physical and human world. I want to know, to analyse, to debate, but further than a simple quest for knowledge, I’m seeking wisdom. Much harder. And needing more humility.

Entries are totally wide-ranging, although typically I aim to record the most striking idea/thought that I notice that day. Sources could be anything, although they tend to be based on something I read in the paper, hear on the radio, or see on the web.

I am putting up five entries per week. This is a constraint to a) instill some discipline into the process, and b) not make it a real daily grind. However, thoughts go by steam (thanks, David Thomas), and they can’t all be doozies. Especially when I haven’t that day noted an idea/thought/item of news that I feel particularly passionate about. At that point, I dredge through some less immediate ideas. Eample: this entry.

I really welcome debate. Ideally, the entries would stand the test of time, and for that reason I reserve the right to refine entries – yes, revisionism! I have, however, noted when I have done that.
Philosophically? I don’t know how wise it would be to state what strands this blog is informed by. Maybe you should work it out yourself. Watch this space, though.

Friday, March 24, 2006

World: The age of everything

The universe: 13,700 million years
Earliest stars: 13,300 million
Sun: 4,700 m
earth: 4,500 m
Life on earth: 600 m
Earliest dinosaurs: 200 m
Current life forms: 10 m
Homo sapiens: 0.2 m (200,000 years)
Known history: 10,000

I thought it would be useful to give a bit of perspective for everything. Yes, we all know human history is crammed into the last second of the evolutionary clock. But to collate where everything else fitted in, I had to use a variety of sources.
Some people like to say there's only 5,000 million years of fuel left in the sun. But this is pretty irrelevant; it dwarves human history, and the earth isn't even that old. Stephen Hawking also felt so moved to pointlessly mention this (A Brief History Of Time).

I once thought it was a shame we're on an outer arm of our galaxy the Milky Way, because if we were closer to the densely packed centre, we'd be closer to a lot of other life forms. But then I read up on quasars. These seem to be galactic centres that collapsed in on themselves, ie if you're at the centre, you'll get sucked into a mammoth black hole. No thanks. Even given the time scales for this to happen, it sounds dodgy.

To get an idea of our place in the universe physically, I strongly recommend Monty Python's The Galaxy Song (analysed here). Lots of useful information therein.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Tech: The Chinese gold rush

How many of these cities do you recognise?
Nanjing, Hangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Shenyang, Ji'nan, Xi'an, Urumqi, Chongqing, Zhengzhou, Wuhan.

I only scored two definites out of eleven (Nanjing and Wuhan). That’s the list of cities Oracle is penetrating in its second-tier assault on China. It’s already located in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu. I scored four out of four here.

Of course, it’s the size of China and high rate of economic expansion that make it the market to lust after. The point being that Oracle knows it pays to be ahead of the game. I don’t expect all those offices to last, but that’s capitalism for you: some bring profit, some don’t. Roger Li, Oracle’s North China MD: “…we are also helping… promote the development of the local economy”. Ooh, it pays to say that.

Interesting to see a modern equivalent of a gold rush. Going back 150 years ago you’d find some Chinese wherever gold was found. Kalgorlie & Coolgardie W.A., the goldfields of Victoria, California, etc. They were escaping poverty. What’s Oracle and compadres doing? Pretty much what capital does best: prospecting.

Everyone’s a winner? The US government doesn’t think so; China’s the looming enemy (see my comments on blocking technology, and Syriana. But capitalism sleeps with anybody. I have to say, it has been known to reduce poverty and war. But don’t think the battle against the evil red scourge has been won. This is all running according to Marx, who expected socialism to develop only when capitalism had nowhere left to go. (see this interpretation for an interesting take.)

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

World: Long term investment vs short attention span

The best evidence politicians have short attention spans is when it comes to initiatives where the payoff is only long term. That’s the reason preserving our global environment is so difficult. And that’s the best explanation for ignoring early childhood intervention, where the benefits over costs are eight to one.

Ross Gittens has written a very interesting article on early intervention. (Gittens has always been good value in recent years.) The gist is that intervention with ‘at risk’ children – the earlier the better, before age eight – has drastic payback later in life in terms of improved incomes, decreased welfare dependency and prison rates, and so on. These are just the economic costs, let alone social. Interesting to read that a key study here was initially deemed a failure, because the intervention was with ‘lower IQ’ children, but followups suggested the marginal improvement didn’t justify the cost. However, subsequent study of the cohort as adults revealed improved socialisation and the benefits mentioned above. Read the article for more detail.

Why are politicians so reluctant to invest where the returns are so far down the track? In part, it’s due to the standard economics concept of ‘discounting the future’ – we value the present much more than the future so, for example, we’re much keener to spend $10 now than to put it towards something that will pay many times over in ten years’ time.

I think it’s also due to short election cycles. Election campaigns these days seem to be focused much more on the short term – what happened in the last month of the campaign, or the last week, rather than talking vision for the future.

Some questions:
a) Why do you think the campaign focus has so drastically contracted over the past 20 years or so?
b) Do politicians respond to people’s concerns, or do people vote according to the agenda set by the politician’s campaign?
c) Or is the agenda largely hijacked by the media, working on whatever will produce headlines that sell?
d) Why do nordic countries and the EU appear to be more forward-thinking than most others?

I believe marginal campaigning bears some culpability too. Political parties move closer together to attempt to capture voters close to their opponents’ affiliations (that, too, is a phenomenon well-known in economics). Campaigns have also focussed harder on the marginal electorates (regions) where the final numbers are won or lost. Improved technology is partly to blame here. But so is the attention span of the voter.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Tech: Don't let people know what you're saying

I saw a blurb today so wonderful I have to share it:

“If you need to look family, friends, and colleagues in the eye, Logitech’s QuickCam Fusion has a 1.3-megapixel sensor and a 78-degree field of vision. It comes bundled with a stereo headset but Logitech’s “RightSound” technology reduces echo so you can use the QuickCam Fusion with its integrated microphone and your computer’s speakers. “RightLight” compensates for low-light conditions while the flexible clip lets you attach the QuickCam Fusion to a CRT or LCD monitor.”

Got it? This was a snippet in the new devices column of today’s paper. I suspect it was written by the vendor, and inserted in toto by a journo too busy to read it.

So you know what it’s talking about? Did you read it more than once? Or did you take more time over it because I’ve highlighted it over all the other press release drebbidge this week?

It was gibberish to me at first, and I went on to the next item. But I went back And figured it’s some sort of camera. For me, they’re webcams – put them on your computer so someone else can see you over the net. But if you don’t immediately extract the term “Cam”, or if you think “Fusion” is the type of device, well it gets harder. The implication – at first – was that it somehow allowed you to look at “family, friends and colleagues”, but no. It allows them to see you. Now why does it start talking about “stereo headsets” and mikes/speakers? Hmm, I guess it bundles a combined headphones and microphone, and the device itself has a built-in mike.

There was a photo with the piece, but it was even more inscrutible – and resolution was low.

Sorry, but before I get to parse it properly, I’ve already passed on to the next item. In this particular case, I did a double take because the whole thing was so obtuse.

a) it didn’t say clearly what it was
b) it didn’t say clearly what it did for me
c) it quickly veered on tangents (or are speakers and microphones now standard in webcams?)

I guess the language should make sense to someone already familiar with it. Maybe it’s aimed only at those who work extensively with webcams, and are currently looking to upgrade. But for the average punter, or for the time-poor technorati – and that covers most of us – it’s mumbo jumbo. The eye scans the item quickly, but the brain doesn’t absorb it.

I stopped for this one because it was laughable. But I didn’t stop for countless other items I read over the past week. Next week this vendor won’t be so lucky.

Obviously technologists still find it easier to come up with new ways of communicating than to improve their own communication.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Tech: Oops! You lose. Or, this can’t be obvious, because it’s being ignored.

My work computer was only a year old when it died. More specifically, the disk crashed.*

I lost work. I lost stuff. Work can be redone, but I also lost email archives, an accumulation of very useful bookmarks, and little bits and pieces that I wanted to keep. And it sounds like opportunism, but this is the truth: I was about to move it all to a network drive that was regularly backed up.**

It would have been much worse if my home computer had died, because a) nobody else would ever have saved any of it for me, and b) I have treasures that I couldn’t recover. Photos, family history, etc. It’s all digital these days, our archive is in our computer. If those archives die, it’s like a house fire that destroys everything. Infrastructure can be recovered, but those personal items can’t.

Backup your data! Start now! Or you will lose.

My immediate plan: I had an old secondary 8 G disk on my computer. I reduced my archive to less than 8 G worth of essentials, then backed it up to that disk. There’s a few peripheral items that needed to be included, such as mailbox and bookmarks, but I made it quick and simple to do the backups: a process that would be painless for me, so I wouldn’t drag the chain. At least there's two copies now. As I mentioned above, I delayed once and I was lost.

The solution’s not ideal, but it’s better than it was. The ideal solution is regular, automatic backup to an offsite copy that will weather storms and house fires. Archiving via DVD may be feasible, but doing it via CD would probably be quite painful.

But failing that, back up to another computer. Failing that, to another disk – as I did. But don’t be a Homer and create a backup on the same disk – that’s almost a waste of time.

Most of us must be living life on the edge. I rang Dell yesterday to do some pricing. 160 G disks are standard, but 2 x 80 G definitely costs extra (Dell no longer goes below 80 G). At a rough guess, I’d say almost all home computers only have a single disk. And no backups are done.

Calamity struck at work – and that was a more professional, newer, environment than home. Your home computer is vulnerable now.

24-Jul-06 Update: IBM has announced a new product, "Tivoli Continuous Data Protection for Files", to automate backup as a background process, in a similar fashion to updating virus definition. This is commendable, and although it's not a new concept, that's the sort of thing that most of us need. Backups should be a background task, set it, (check it's working!), then forget it.

*Helpdesk said it was a bad batch of Maxtors, and quite a few people had suffered. To be honest, they said “don’t use Maxtor!”, but it really would be more accurate to call it a bad batch, or Maxtor would be out of business, as a lot of old disk makers are - see this discussion. I also found a page which rated manufacturers, but treat it as somewhat anecdotal.

**Why did I not consistently use only a network drive, regularly backed up? I’d had a bad experience a couple of years ago, where I asked helpdesk to recover a file. After a few months of badgering, they eventually said to me they couldn’t recover it. In mitigation, I should say the IT manager at the time was quite hopeless, and was subsequently abolished. A decent operation would periodically test both backup and recovery processes.

Pers: Fake happiness in a tropical paradise

In the colour supplement of last Sunday’s Murdoch, was a bloke the copywriter could only envy. He lived in Hawaii, where he played guitar and surfed. Occasionally he’d write songs and release videos, in which he’d apparently play guitar and surf.

Would you like to do that for the rest of your life? Would that be your definition of happiness too?

Well, after a few years of the same, and more of the same, I’d figure it’s time to move on. Happiness is so transient, any situation loses its appeal once you get used to it. Obviously, constant change is needed. Learning, growth, and challenge. Ongoing happiness is spiritual.

I find that in my kids. Kids are certainly a challenging experience. Humbling, too. And happiness through their eyes is not just evilly vicarious. It’s refreshing, renewing to discover where the joy lies in everyday life.

It’s that combination of humility and challenge that makes raising children rewarding for me. As I accept the innate happiness that children express, I experience more moments of happiness than I could get from any island paradise.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

World: The smallest event that changed history?

I would argue that the Norman conquest fundamentally changed the nature of English – and world – history. The subsequent infusion of Norman – over Germanic and Danish – law and customs had an absolutely profound effect on the character of the English, who went on to a period of world domination, peaking in the 1750s and subsequently achieved by proxy through the U.S.

The battle of Hastings has been said to be lost when King Harold was killed in 1066. It's also been said that a chance arrow shot him in the eye.
If that hadn’t happened, would the Norman invasion have failed? Opinion varies. Yet history is largely written by the victors...

It was Harold's bad fortune to face two significant invaders in the one year. He successfully fought off the Vikings to the north, only to lose to the Normans who, as it happens, were Vikings who had only settled in that area in the previous century.

Could Harold’s army have staved off the Normans if it wasn’t for that arrow?

Maybe a more pertinent question is: did he definitely die that way?

The sources I have seen do vary. In fact the chief source of the "arrow in the eye" seems to be the Bayeux Tapestry, which is subject to interpretation on Harold’s death anyway. Careful analysis yields two possible deaths depicted, including being killed by a horseman. However, the arrow could actually be interpreted as symbolic. In medieval symbolism, liars get a weapon in the eye - and Harold apparently recanted on his promise to support William's claim to the throne. (In fact, William could lay hereditic claim to the throne as the cousin of Harold's predecessor, Edward the Confessor; whereas Harold was simply son of the Earl of Wessex. Harold, however, was anointed king by Edward, then subsequently by assembly.)

If the arrow story was literal, I would argue that this would be the smallest incident that had the biggest effect on world history.

A very interesting point - raised by Mark Maddison. Comments welcome.

World: are three parents better than two?

Are two parents better than one? Why?

Anecdotally, I’ve come to the conclusion that – economics aside – one of the notable reasons two parents are better than one is because you have a variety of experiences to draw upon. In Radiant Day’s words, the weaknesses of one can be compensated in the other. The combined parenting experiences of two would more than offset differences of opinion.

So, for three parents, the returns are even better! Although, I suspect, the marginal returns get smaller as the numbers get bigger. This because the gaps to be compensated would diminish, but the differences of opinion would increase. So I don’t think Radiant Day’s suggestion of five parents would be very effective.

This is not entirely stupid. There’s quite a wide range of family experiences, including grandparents, step-parents, and associated hangers-on. In some Koori communities, adults act more collectively as parents, to the benefit of all.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

World: Iraq and ethical minefields

Bush invaded Iraq without international approval. Motivation? Pick one:
- weapons of mass destruction: not found; evidence was always dodgy
- terrorism: only very minor links found; no links to the world trade centre attacks
- get rid of Saddam Hussein: problematic; see below. Unlikely to be a direct motivation
- vengeance: wanted to attack someone: tenuous
- secure oil supply: far and away most consistent with Bush’s past stated aims.

Invasion to secure energy supplies is clearly not ethical.

Abu Ghraib, Guantanemo Bay, and the practice of “rendition” are probably in large part a direct response to the World Trade Centre attacks. Understandable in the context of a small child’s reprisals, but certainly not the hallmarks of an ethical administration, or leader.

I suspect that there’s an inherent difficulty in maintaining ethics as a world power. I suspect it would be quite difficult applying personal ethical standards to world politics. However, I'd say some are better at it than others. Scandinavian countries, for example.

What do you think of the ethics of the European Union? In toto, are they significantly better than the US? Discuss.

I also suspect that using power unethically will only, in the long run, exacerbate problems.

Bush is not ethical. Are you? Did you want to get rid of Saddam? Well, of course. He was a butcher. But world politics doesn’t work that way – otherwise we’d all be invading each other on the slightest pretext. So, what would have been the most ethical thing to do in Iraq?

More difficult: what's the best thing to do, now that we're in the current situation? Leave? Then by default leave things to the Sunni 'insurgents'? They were, after all, funded by the billions looted in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, before the US decided to try to exert some control.

Murdering thousands of innocents, and brutalising a whole populace, is certainly about the lowest you can get. And I'm talking about these 'insurgents', never mind what the US is doing.

And what ethical yardsticks should we apply to nations as a whole? Should different standards apply to world powers? In my heart, I'd say we should all purvey the same standards, but I get the feeling this is not really possible. In practice, I think smaller players in world diplomacy - Scandinavia, EU, UN - tend to try for more achievable goals rather than absolutes.

Monday, March 13, 2006

World: An outsider’s view of your country’s values

The following letter appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald of Saturday, 11 March 2006. It’s worth reproducing in full. A few words for non-Australians: Centrelink is the government welfare agency, and Peter Costello, Treasurer, is the politician who contributed significantly to current ‘debate’ by telling migrants to get with the Australian way or get out.

I am a refugee who escaped the slaughter of my people in Afghanistan. I have been told by politicians on television and by labourers at work that I must live my life the Australian way, and adopt Australian values or return to my homeland.

Because of my ethnic background, going home would mean a death sentence for me without any crime having been committed. I am surprised that people who don't know me would give me this advice. Do they think that unless you're Australian, you don't behave correctly?
When people meet me and ask where I'm from, before knowing anything about me they tell me, "be like us or go home". Do they assume I am ignorant and worthless just because I was raised in another culture?

I try to live a good life - to be friendly to everyone whatever their colour or nationality or religion. I try to do no harm to anyone and to work hard as part of this country that has taken me in. I have some wonderful Australian friends. I know there is lots of kindness and love in the hearts of many Australians but I am confused about Australian values.

It was horrifying to hear about the elderly Aboriginal woman in Brisbane who lay suffering for many hours at a bus stop after suffering a stroke, without help or mercy. I've heard these stories many times since I came to Australia. Neighbours die and nobody cares enough to check on them. But 1 see on TV that if a pet gets sick it will be quickly taken for help or the RSPCA can prosecute. People spend thousands of dollars on their animals while other people's children starve.

There are countless stories of Muslim women in Australia becoming very isolated, being too afraid to walk down the street alone for fear of being spat on and abused. One very well-educated woman had a can of soft drink and insults thrown at her and her tiny child from a passing car, just because they are Muslim.

I hear Australians boasting about stealing money from Centrelink by working and not telling anybody. I've heard others talk about things they've stolen from shops. I hear people saying terrible things about Aborigines and everyone laughs.

Are these the values I have to live by now to be accepted here? If I did, I would die slowly from the inside - from my soul. Perhaps Peter Costello is right. Maybe it would be better to send me back to a quick death in my homeland.

I do not believe that worthwhile values start and stop at a country's borders. I believe they live in the hearts of good people of all countries and cultures wherever they may travel and live.

I. Saydi, Brisbane

Thursday, March 09, 2006

World: Oppressing in the name of... whatever you can use to justify it

A couple of BBC reports overnight.

Marina Mahathir, daughter of the Malaysian ex-dictator, likened new laws to aparthied South Africa. Malaysia's Islamic family law worsened life specifically for Muslim women, and didn't affect non-Muslim women (inter alia, making it much easier for men to take multiple wives and to divorce women). The government ministry responsible for women recommended not complaining about the law, suggesting it could be changed later. Ms Mahathir in turn suggested the Ministry should be split into two: a Ministry for the promotion and advancement of non-Muslim women, and a Ministry "to keep Muslim women bound and gagged".

In Afghanistan, the president railed against the practice of marrying off women to settle debts or feuds. Apparently about 50 - 60% of Afghanistani women today are forced into marriage.

All I can really say about this is that inhuman practices by men against women still take many forms. At least significant voices are being raised.

World: If you've never heard the music of... Ali Farka Toure

I have to note the death of Ali Farka Toure. A musician from Mali in western Africa, his style of electric guitar - unique to my ear - was a very special blend of african and western.

He started with traditional Mali stringed instruments, but got a western guitar when he was 18. He was influenced by american blues and R&B music, such as Albert King and Otis Redding. He won two grammies in the past 10-odd years, the first a collaboration with Ry Cooder.

If I'd never heard anything more, I would still sing his praises on the basis of the first track I ever heard from him, the wonderfully sublime Karaw from 1992's The Source. As it is, I'm glad there's a lot more for me still to explore.

He was 66 or 69 when he died (depending on sources), and the mayor of his town.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

World: Venality in the energy politics of Syriana

Syriana is a strong film. It integrates the worlds of business, government, military and intelligence services, through oil politics. It discusses nation-building and hegemony, but most of all it depicts the combined resources of business and government, fighting a very real economic war. Who’s the root enemy? China*. Throttle them by cutting off their access to energy. Around that crux, the film illustrates how leaders of those entities have a callously casual attitude to people and small nations.

However, the film’s power lies in bringing these issues home to the family and the personal spheres. The most turbulent moment for me was this integration in a scene where an Arab Prince is discussing power plays with a young executive whose boy was accidentally killed at the prince’s party. At one point he executive balks, bitterly referring to blood money for his son’s death. But the riposte is: what price, then, your other son’s life? $100 million instead of $75 million? The accident is called into question, and the threat made. (It was an accident, but it was used coldly.)

But the venality is shared on all sides. It’s venal, sometimes violent. By comparison, so is Sin City, for example - albeit much more so. Here I would argue that Syriana's violence was central to the thesis of the film, whereas Sin City is more a gratuitous celebration of violence.

Again, in contrast Sin City was driven by personal gratification, personal vendetta. In Syriana, most of the violence was orchestrated at a distance. With an executive flick of the hand, someone’s fate is written off.

Yet, which is more callous: violence executed personally for personal reasons, or for professional reasons at a distance?

Not a simple film to watch. The Herald said you need a whiteboard to understand it; the Sun Herald said it’s one of the few films to underestimate its audience.

Dense, intelligent, powerful.

*Again! See my first post, Feb-06.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Pers: No footprints

At 6am today, the sky was still dark. At 7am, the sun was about 10-15° above the horizon. Doesn’t sound like much, but it looked quite high, over the Tasman Sea.
Even in autumn at 7am, it was hot after a quick walk to the beach. And a bit smelly: it’s near-impossible to excape the car-pollution in Sydney. Even off the main roads, even on the fringe of the Cumberland basin in which Sydney sits. Think what it’s like for those living and working in the western suburbs, in the middle of the basin. In the middle of the day, the distant haze is visible and oppressive. Still, it’s noticeably better than it was before tighter emission laws – I particularly remember how much worse it was before the virtual elimination of lead in petrol.

Walking along the shoulder of the hard sand at water’s edge, watching the waves erasing footprints ahead of me, I was thinking of the song No Footprints*. Wondering if I wanted to leave no footprints after I was gone. Yes and no. Certainly, humans have trampled this planet, to the point where recovery, if any, is slow. Full recovery of a scant century of ravages would be impossible.

A few days ago, well-known Australian scientist Tim Flannery said he’d changed his mind several times as to when the need for urgent action would be upon us. Fifty years, ten years, now. Do what you can. Inter alia, Flannery suggested getting your energy from 100% renewable sources – “it costs a cup of coffee a day”. [this is a solution available in Sydney. Pay extra, to get your electricity credited from 25%, 50%, or 100% renewable sources. It doesn’t guarantee that each watt comes directly from renewables, but it guarantees it’ll ensure they are generating from renewables equivalent to the electricity you consume.]
I’d add: public transport as much as possible. Vegetarians would get heaps of bonus points too, given the relative cost of getting your protein from meat. I also heard this week of a "100 mile diet" – not a diet, but an attempt to consume only from food sources grown within 100 miles of where you live – to cut down significantly on distribution costs. Here, cost refers to environmental rather than financial, since all too frequently environmental costs are externalised, ie not built into the cost of the item, but effectively spread over the region or planet through environmental degradation.

I’m not expecting many to go for that 100 mile diet – it’s actually quite difficult. My point is that there’s a full spectrum of options, and it’s worth doing what you can.

Still, I’d like to see something left behind me. A digital photo, a bit of DNA. Not a ravaged planet. So far I still eat meat, but amongst other things I use public transport where possible, and pay for 100% renewable electricity. Further ideas welcome.

Keep a footprint, but keep it small.

*No Footprints – Bruce Cockburn, from the superb album Dancing In The Dragon’s Jaws.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

World: Why there are so many prisoners and homeless

Today’s thesis is that you can’t achieve worthwhile social outcomes if you focus simply on the cost of the process. Or, social initiatives too often ignore the real cost.

Is this a truism? What am I talking about?

I’m thinking specifically about care for the mentally ill, but more generally about how initiatives fail if they go solely by cost.

In 1983, the Richmond report was produced on behalf of the New South Wales government. In essence, it recommended deinstitutionalisation for the mentally ill. From what I’ve seen, this was a trend that was happening around the world at the time. Rather like economic rationalism (elsewhere known as Thatcherism, Reaganomics, Rogernomics, etc), certain ideas catch hold and spread through the western world like a plague.

Deinstitutionalisation in itself is not a bad thing at all. Nobody really benefits from having people locked away, except those who want to see everyone different… well, locked away.

However, the mentally ill were ‘released’ without sufficient support services and management plans. We saw the results of this anecdotally through the 80s and early 90s where the number of homeless people in Sydney jumped substantially. More people living and begging on the streets.

Yesterday in the SMH, Dr Michael Gliksman pointed out where another large cohort of releasees ended up: in jail. Since the Richmond report, the population of NSW jails has tripled. “Up to 75 percent of adult prisoners had a psychiatric disorder within the 12 months preceding their incarceration. Thirty percent have a significant history of self-harm” [my italics]. If nothing else, this specifically demonstrates that the mentally ill don’t receive the services they need. More largely writ, as Gliksman points out: this is reinstitutionalisation, and the Richmond report has simply resulted in shifting the cost. Possibly cheaper – if you only compare prison costs to psychiatric care costs – but certainly worse for everyone. They’re now locked up for crimes: personal or property damage to the general population.

I would then argue that the associated, unquantified costs – social and otherwise – render that deinstitutionalisation trend a scam. Gliksman points out jail costs around $75,000 per prisoner, but only about $35 – $50,000 to “properly house” each homeless mentally ill person.

The Richmond report was wrong, wrong wrong on all counts. Is this said with the benefit of hindsight? Well, I think it fairly intuitive that social solutions that focus only on the immediate costs will fail. Responsibility for this political expedience should fall on not just the politicians, but the professionals doing the analysis, accepting the recommendations – and all of us for not railing against stupidity.

If you think I’m stating the obvious, then… use your voice.

Friday, March 03, 2006

World: Spending to help

A report today of Bono launching a credit card which donates 1% of every transaction to HIV/AIDS solutions in Africa. A quick look on the web reveals it's not the first - there is an Elton John-branded one that does similar, except closer to home for the spenders.

A few thoughts that came out of this:

- it's quite a neat idea to directly associate giving with spending. (Even if it assuages the ego somewhat glibly.) It's more than nothing, and certainly a higher proportion than some governments spend on foreign aid.

- Bono in the news too much? It feels like it. But who can argue, if he's doing worthwhile things. I'm even prepared to praise Bill Gates for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It's better than being disheartened by a Bush or a Howard.

- If this was a life where you were assessed for your ethics, you'd get more points for helping people the further distant they were from your own life. (and one or two more points for not tagging something with your own name. )

As a whole, though, in a world where values are being rapidly reduced to a single, monetary value, it makes a lot of sense to integrate ethical goals with that paradigm.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

World: How time really works

Time is like the graph of y = 1/x.

This is an attempt to explain the big bang. It's a simple model that can help understand what happens closer to the event itself.

I will call the graph 'experience'. We experience time and... something else. Let's call that something ujnf (pronounced 'ujnif'). Time=x; ujnf=y.

Of course, experience only moves in one direction (as far we are aware). We're in the positive quadrant, a fair bit down the time track where x is a fairly large number and the line appears to us as quite flat. We really only know experience as time, with no discernable aspect in the y, or ujnf, dimension.

The origin, where x=0 and y=0, is the big bang - ie the beginning of the universe. As you can see, we can never actually get there. As we look backwards along the experience line, the secondary dimension, ujnf, actually moves a little bit, and as we get closer to the big bang, the time dimension slows right down. Eventually experience is moving nearly entirely in the ujnf dimension.

With this model, time slows down moving closer to the big bang, but you never actually get there. I believe that squares with some other views on that end of the universe - and it answers the question: what happened before the big bang? Answer: you can never actually get there (per below, it would be like trying to cross to a different universe). Close to the event, time slows down - but experience moving in a different direction. Not that this could be experienced, just conceptualised.

This means:

a) if we could travel backwards in time - or rather, experience - we'd never actually get to the big bang, because although experience would continue as ujnf, the time component would slow down until it effectively stops.
b) the big bang is a singularity, and like all singularities (black holes in particular) we can never actually experience it. (In black holes, time also slows down, but gravity would rip us to pieces, probably before we started experiencing ujnf.)


1) What is ujnf?
2) Are we really too far down the track to experience ujnf at all?
3) Would we have the senses to feel ujnf?
4) What is that negative part of the graph - negative time and negative ujnf? Obviously it's before the start of the universe, but how do we conceptualise it?
5) In the conceptual model, what does it mean if we move the experience line closer to the origin - eg y=1/x squared?
6) As I said, it's only a simple model. For example, why should there be only two dimensions?

There are several ways in which this can tie in with physicist Leonard Susskind's conceptualisation of multiple universes. Most of those methods - except 5) & 6) above - would involve crossovers from one universe to another. I doubt that would be possible, so let's just stick to crossing to another universe via (impossible) movement in the direction of y=x. But his is more in the realm of science fiction, as far as we know today.

I came up with this model some years back. Are there any theoretical developments that either mimic or negate this? Your comments please.

(I reserve the right to refine this discussion as time goes by. If not ujnf.)

* Thanks to Wikibooks for the chart.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Pers: How to avoid lame children’s books

There’s no easy answer. You have to assiduously devour several libraries. Going by authors certainly helps. Take at least a quick search through each book for the odd or stimulating.

I’m talking about books for you to read to children. Children's books are a whole new world for adults, when it's time for that second, vicarious childhood. For the discerning adult, they can be quite exciting or beautiful, although usually too damn short. I've listed here some worthwhile books, to give you a head start.

What’s wrong with lame books? Well, why pick them when there are books that are stimulating, interesting on more than one level? I like non-lame because it’s more likely to stir the imagination, and give them wondrous expectations of this world. And since I'm doing a lot of reading, I'd like it to be a pleasant experience for everyone. I think that's quite important.

Most children’s books are lame. They do this, they do that, the end. Mundane. Generally, books that are tie-ins to tv or film can be quite lame, because they sell on the recognition factor. But even if the book is introducing new concepts, it can do it more wondrously than 80% of books out there. There are even quite basic books that aren’t lame.
I get an objective confirmation of my choices: when I check books out of one library, I get frequent beeps. Those are books marked on the "Premier's Reading List" - a State government programme to encourage reading, that identifies especially worthwhile books.

When kids choose the books themselves, they’re not going by your criteria. So expect lameness, but find some insight into their choices. My daughter’s first pick at school was one from the interminable series Clifford the Big Red Dog. Familiarity. We got one once before, and I see it’s on tv. (“Why did you get this book?” “I like the cover”). Don’t knock their choices at all, but if you’re doing the reading, you can also find books that carry.

Generally, I go for wild flights of imagination, or the unconventional ending, or odd variants on common stories.

Try these authors or books:
  • Allan Ahlberg
  • Pamela Allen [odd people, odd situations]
  • Dianne Bates - Big Bad Bruce [for the ending]
  • John Birmingham [often imaginative. Not the Australian humourist/social writer]
  • Quentin Blake, as author [often unexpected, often charming, sometimes a little pedestrian]
  • Anthony Browne [sometimes quite surreal; obsessed with monkeys]
  • Keith Du Quette – A Ripping Day for a Picnic [simple story, lovely illustrations]
  • Tohby Riddle [Australian author - lives close by, in Coogee I believe]
  • Phyllis Root – Aunt Nancy and Old Man Trouble
  • Tony Ross [often lots of fun]
  • John Scieszka – The Book that Jack Wrote [escapes its boundaries]
  • Maurice Sendak [of course]
Lots more wonders than I can possibly remember. I’ll add more when they come to me.

Libraries are essential for the sheer bulk and variety. You can put the child off with a limited range that they don’t like or are bored by.
There will remain issues of comprehension and concentration. It’s hard to age-categorise books, because of different differential speeds. You just have to test it out, and see whether your subject wanders away - literally. A very direct critical device!

One more thing: some kids like books more than others; some have less patience or concentration. Work with what you’ve got, don’t try to make the child change. Books are so diverse that it’s possible to find something for everyone.
(Myself, I’ve gone through a lot of books on construction machinery!)

Oh, and I still like much of Dr Seuss. Makes the outlandish seem everyday.