The State puts its jackboots on.
We in the Western world are getting closer to living in a police state. I
have heard two items recently which point to this: one from Britain, and one
from my own country of Australia.
Britain is proposing to tighten its anti-terrorism laws. Apparently the
ruling politicians there believe the danger from terrorism is so great that the
burden of proof in terrorism-related court trials must be reduced from "beyond
reasonable doubt" to "on the balance of probabilities". They also want secret
trials, and the ability to detain suspects for unlimited periods of time without
This is extremely alarming, and strips away hard-won human rights that have
become traditional in modern democracies. There will be no accountability in
secret trials, and one has to wonder why they want unlimited detention of
suspects without trial - something we have already seen for a couple of years at
Guantanamo Bay and its caged prisoners - which included pre-teen children, for
goodness' sake (a few of those children were released recently). If they have
evidence against someone, they should put them on trial and present the
evidence; if there is no evidence, the suspects should be released. This
strikes me as arrant abuse of human rights: if they had any concern for human
rights, there would be no reason why they would want to hold people without
trial for indefinite periods.
Obviously the proposed change to British law is alarming for the state of
human rights in Britain itself; but it should also be of concern to people
outside Britain too, in that it points to the widespread erosion of human rights
which is a disease infesting many democratic countries. Ideas such as a fair
trial (open unless there are very good reasons occasionally for partial secrecy),
freedom from arbitrary imprisonment, and making authorities accountable have
long been held to be basic to a civilized and decent justice system - so why do
these principles apparently apply no longer? Those who are proposing these
changes are not answering such questions. Meanwhile, they are so zealous in (so
they claim) protecting human rights against those who would abuse them that they
are even prepared to violate human rights themselves in that cause. Perhaps I'm
out of tune with the spirit of the age, or something - but I find this bizarre.
I do not want to appear to be saying that terrorists should be allowed to
continue their activities unhindered - which of course I wouldn't agree with.
But politicians appear to be behaving as if terrorist acts are legal, and they
are rushing round in a panic to make all these things illegal, before the
terrorists can do any more damage. They appear to be acting as if all the acts
labelled as "terrorist" are not already serious criminal acts under the
already-existing laws of all countries.
The other news items concerns the so-called "war against drugs" in
Australia. (Why do we have wars against everything? - drugs, terrorism?
Someone once commented that having a war against drugs is the best way of
ensuring that drugs continue to proliferate. You are literally feeding the
thing you are trying to stamp out. Somehow I never forgot that - and I think I
have more recently heard the same thing said of terrorism.)
As a measure in this "war against drugs", New South Wales police are going
to get the power to randomly stop cars entering the state from South Australia,
and allow drug sniffer dogs to go over the car. If a dog shows signs of finding
drugs, the police will then have the right to search the car thoroughly. This
is intended to stem the interstate trafficking of drugs from South Australia
into New South Wales.
I am a law-abiding person, and would not even think of getting involved in
using or trafficking in illegal drugs in any way. Yet if I were driving
interstate and were arbitrarily stopped by police and required to give sniffer
dogs access to my car, I would be mighty resentful of this intrusion, and
certainly not too pleased at having to let dogs poke their wet noses into my car
or belongings. And if the dogs showed signs of interest for some reason (I
would imagine false positives are not unknown with these dogs, who may sometimes
get excited about things other than drugs they detect), I would be livid at
having to submit to having my belongings turned out of my car and pawed over by
cold, unsympathetic officers of the law.
What about the idea always put forward by supporters of this heavy-handed
authoritarian approach to law and order - the idea of "If you haven't done
anything wrong, and have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about"?
Well, it's not relevant. Fear of detection of illegal acts is not the only
reason why things like this can be an unreasonable imposition on citizens.
There are elements of unreasonable inconvenience and possible humiliation, as
well as the obvious issue of privacy.
There is nothing illegal about anything I possess - but I don't want
strangers rifling through my belongings, looking at whatever they please, unless
there's a very good reason for it. A very good reason would be a reasonable
suspicion that I am involved in illegal acts - which clearly would not apply to
cars stopped at random for searching.
I think there is a good case for adopting a more liberal attitude on drugs,
treating it as more of a social and/or health problem than as a criminal issue.
But the crusade against the "evil of drugs" is far too beloved of the repressive
and conservative politicians who dominate the scene now, who like nothing better
than to stir up public alarm over it, for them ever to give it up - even though
this approach is clearly not working.
In any case, I believe that most of the danger that exists in using illegal
drugs stems from their illegality, and the concomitant problems of quality
control in an underworld setting, than from their inherent chemical nature,
which may not be trouble-free, but perhaps quite manageable under adequate
medical supervision. However, the illegal status of these drugs will ensure
that most people with drug problems cannot get the medical care they need.
Tying together these two news items, and seeing a common thread linking
them together: I have a hunch about the motivations of politicians - perhaps not
all of them, but enough of them, or powerful enough ones, for it to be the main
influence of them in aggregate. That hunch is that politicians lust for power
so fiercely that they want to control their subjects (which is what I suspect
they think voters really are): they want to regulate and control and remove
human freedoms, all as part of their insatiable power trip. But, because the
electoral mechanism is firmly entrenched in democratic societies and could not
be removed without sparking a violent revolution, politicians have to work
within those bounds, and be a bit subtle about their attacks on freedom. So
they use the media to manipulate public opinion, playing upon people's fears and
prejudices, so that eventually they can get the people to vote for them, having
stated their intention of introducing certain policies. Even if (as
increasingly happens) the policies violate principles of simple justice and
freedom, the politicians claim a "mandate" to introduce those policies, having
manipulated public opinion into a kind of pseudo-acceptance.
The terrorist attacks on the U.S. on 11 September, 2001 were a godsend to
politicians: it gave them just what they needed to persuade the public into
accepting outrageous abuses of human rights, in the name of preventing another
"September 11". I accept that President George W. Bush of the U.S. was
genuinely distressed at this event. I could see the distress etched in his face
and hear it hardening his voice when I heard him first speak about it, only
hours after the attacks took place. But it hasn't stopped him from using it as
an excuse for tightening up on the human-rights issues I am talking about.
As for Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Howard of the U.K. and
Australia, who are behaving like a pair of little yapping lapdogs to President
Bush, it has been very useful indeed, and I am sick to death of hearing
"terror", "war against terrorism" - on and on and on - spilling forth from their
lips. They have made into law intrusive measures which they wouldn't have had a hope of passing into law even a mere 5 years ago, so great would be the public outrage.
Here in Australia, the Tampa incident, involving the Norwegian ship which
picked up refugees from their crumbling boats and sought to bring them to
Australian shores, was another godsend to the Howard government. I never
thought I'd see the day when a ship's captain would be threatened with jail,
simply for doing what conscience surely should dictate, for doing his duty under
international marine law to give help to those in distress at sea. This
incident gave John Howard just the excuse he needed to bring out his dog whistle
and trigger the underlying fears a significant segment of the Australian
population has about immigrants, people from other religions or cultures. And,
in no time at all, this issue was also being linked with terrorists, although
no-one seems to have explicitly said so. (That's the dog-whistle effect: you
can signal a message to one group of the population and appeal to them, without
other people who might be opposed to the message noticing until after the
message has sunk in and its effects can't be undone. I'm afraid John Howard is
an experienced master of dog-whistle politics.)
Politicians seem to be treating terrorist acts as a whole new type of crime
to which legal principles we have built up over the centuries do not apply - and
I find this profoundly disturbing and extremely frightening. We can now give
espionage agencies alarmingly wide-ranging powers of search, arrest, and
interrogation, including non-suspects from whom information is sought; we can
now hold people indefinitely without trial; we can lower the standard of proof
required in criminal trials, and thus increase the risk of innocent people being
jailed; and we can now search people arbitrarily without any grounds for
suspecting they have committed criminal acts.
What is happening to humanity?
Is research to reduce a killer disease the best course
to follow? Maybe not always.
I heard two items of news yesterday which seem to point to a thought in
common between them which I've occasionally thought about over the years.
One thing was that stomach cancer is one of the few cancers that is
becoming less common, apparently largely due to the use (in the Western world,
at least) of preservatives in meat or other foods, which in turn is due to more
common use of refrigeration. This was hailed as a good thing.
The other thing was a debate between two dietary experts: one was giving
the conventional advice that obesity is worse when you don't exercise enough and
eat too many fatty foods; and the other (very controversially) downplayed this,
and said that guilt about what you eat is worse for your health than lack of
exercise and too many fats or carbohydrates, and we should just enjoy food more,
including some of the sort the "food police" try to stop us eating. He didn't
appear to be saying this would reduce obesity, but he did claim that it improved
your overall health, and increased average life-span; and he cited various
studies which apparently showed that people who habitually went on diets and
became obsessed with their diet and health actually had higher mortality rates
and died younger.
And these two unrelated items prompted in my mind a thought I've had from
time to time, which I've never heard anyone point out - not even once. I have
little doubt that to even raise this issue would be seen as offensive and
politically incorrect by some, so irrational have become our attitudes to
Usually, when some medical advance or diet is claimed to have reduced the
mortality rate for some disease, it is hailed a a medical triumph, and a victory
over that particular disease. And, if that disease was a relatively common
cause of death, no-one ever asks what disease may replace it as the no. 1 killer
(or no. 2, or whatever ranking the disease had that has just been reduced), and
whether that new occupant of that place may be a worse death than the disease
which has just been subdued.
I think it is a highly relevant question, but think it is probably not
politicially correct to point this out, and it ties in with our general taboo
against talking about death, making it impossible as a society to think
rationally about this issue. If disease A (whatever it is) is greatly reduced,
so that more people live longer, and more of them die, a few years later, of
disease B, which may be far more horrible - then I think it is highly
questionable to claim this as an overall advance in human welfare. You may give
some people a few more years of life, but in return give them a far more
horrible death - which is not an offer I, for one, would want to accept. I, for
one, do not believe it to be an advance to increase the average human life-span
if those extra years are low-quality, and think that at least we need to think
about this issue and let it guide research directions, instead of just blindly
believing any increase in life-span is automatically an absolute good.
I have heard it suggested that one reason why Alzheimer's disease,
Parkinson's, dementia, and other slow, degenerative diseases appear to be more
common now is that we have made real inroads into other killers such as heart
disease or diabetes or strokes. Well, I grant that those can lead to a nasty
end of life, including years of paralysis; but I wonder whether the slow
degenerative disease can sometimes be even more horrible still. Perhaps motor
neurone disease is one of the ultimate horrors, as it gradually, over years,
seizes up your nervous system, speech, fine motor movements, and finally
respiration, so that, in the end, you die slowly of suffocation. I have heard
that, in extreme cases, victims (I don't go in for the mealy-mouthed terminology
of "survivors" - which they are only for the time being) of Lou Gehrig's disease
(which I believe is related to motor neurone disease) are completely paralyzed,
so that they can literally move nothing more than their eyeballs.
Just think for a moment about what that would be like: unable to move,
unable to end your life (which I bet some such patients desperately long for),
with nothing whatever to hope for except for eventual release in death, and (for
some) the hope of a better after-life; it would be almost the ultimate form of
agonizing torture. I think it would be utterly terrifying to have life
stretching ahead of you, possibly for years, in such extreme helplessness. I
think I'd rather take my chances with a simple heart attack, thanks.
We all must die of something - there is no such thing as reducing
mortality. While it is natural for researchers in each given area of disease to
try to reduce deaths from that disease, the truth is that all we can do is
redistribute mortality from some diseases to others - and, if the diseases whose
incidence increases are (on average) worse than the diseases we are reducing,
then the net result is a deterioation in human welfare, an increase in the
overall amount of human suffering - which is exactly what I think we should be
trying to avoid.
There is a somewhat related problem with the debate in earlier years about
the benefits or drawbacks of using seat-belts in cars. The usual argument in
favour of them is that they save lives by preventing you either from being
thrown out of your vehicle, or from bashing your head on the dashboard of the
car. There probably isn't any reasonable doubt that this does save lives.
Opponents say that it can cause deaths by making it difficult (if you have
survived the crash and have at least some movement still) to escape from the car
before it possibly catches fire from leaking petrol. I don't myself know which
argument outweighs the other; but experts seem to think the former one does.
But what both sides fail to ask (at least that I've heard) is this: does
using seat-belts, even while saving lives, actually increase the number of cases
of severe and permanent maiming, so that survivors are more likely to suffer
severe disability than they would if they didn't use seat-belts?
I will illustrate this with some made-up statistics (and they are purely
fabricated to illustrate the point, since I have never encountered real
statistics on this). Suppose that research showed that the percentages of
outcomes of accidents where people did not use seat-belts averaged out like
And suppose the results were like this when people did use seat-belts:
Accident outcomes WITHOUT seat-belts
| Severe disability:
| Unimpaired survival:
If we use these hypothetical statistics, and ask "Which option gives you
the best chance of avoiding death?", it is true that using a seat-belt gives a
better result for this. However, to my mind, the relevant question is "Which
option gives you the best chance of avoiding severe maiming?", because it is the
outcome I fear the most; and it is obvious that (in this scenario) not using a
seat-belt gives the best answer to this question.
Accident outcomes WITH seat-belts
| Severe disability:
| Unimpaired survival:
I do not know know if any research has been done on the death vs.
disability question, and I do not know if the facts on this would be similar to
what I have suggested. But I do wonder about it; and if it could be established
that with seat-belts I am more likely to survive - but also more likely to be
severely disabled - then I would wish to seriously consider not using seat-belts.
If I was involved in a car accident, I would rather die outright than survive in
a seriously maimed condition, with a quality of life I would not find worth
living. Allowing for this possible choice some might like to make, the
compulsory use of seat-belts could be seen as intrusive, and a denial of freedom
I think we need, as a society, to debate about things like whether we
should suppress this or that disease, so that some other worse disease replaces
it as a prime killer, or whether we should make people use seat-belts, so that
they swap a quick death for a life of disability probably followed by a pretty
harrowing death later on. However, on one level, these seem to be arguments
merely about changing the timing of death and the likely quality of that death,
and about the quality of extra years we gain in life-span - not about saving
lives. In the end, no lives can be saved: the mortality rate of humanity is
100%, whatever we do or don't do; we can only exert some control over the timing
and quality of that death, and do our best to maximize the quality of extra
life-span we can achieve.
I believe individuals should have full control over these factors for
themselves, to the extent possible - and I would like to think research would be
guided in ways that allow for this personal choice for individuals. I do not
take it for granted that reducing mortality for one disease is automatically a
good thing, if it leads to increased mortality for a slower, more horrible
What a non-issue!
The Australian federal election campaign has obviously already unofficially begun - on a completely trivial issue.
The date of the Australian federal election has not been announced yet, but it is due within a year or so. But both the major party leaders are touring the country, trying to bolster up support. And somehow the debate engaged in by the leaders (and the media) is the age of the respective leaders and prospective Prime Ministers: the Liberal Party's John Howard is 64, and Labor's Mark Latham is 42. And everyone seems to be babbling on about whether one leader is too old, or his ideas too old, the other's youth a breath of fresh air - and so on. No real discussion of policies and how they will affect the country and the population. Leadership is itself an election issue, it seems - not health, education, taxation, and so on. I bet both leaders already know what they intend to do, but want to see which way the wind is blowing before they tell us of their plans.
It simply seems to illustrate the deplorable lack of ideas and policy in modern politics - all spin and surface and deception and exploitation of fears and prejudices - and no real substance, no real debate about anything.
And the politicians wonder why the electors are so intensely cynical about politics and politicians? Pull your finger out, pollies, take your snouts out of the trough, and stop playing your silly power games; and look in the mirror if you want to see the real cause of the fundamental problem behind Australian politics. Stop raving on about inane non-issues such as leadership itself, and tell us what you're going to do to make this country better. Tell us how you're going to improve social justice, how you're going to reduce (at least slightly) the growing inequality between different sectors of our society. If a policy you want to follow seems on the face of it to be harmful to vulnerable people, tell us why we should nevertheless do it, and how you're going to compensate for those disadvantaged. Convince us with straight reasoning, rather than obfuscate matters by arcane jargon and complex (and probably loaded) statistics which most people can't evaluate properly anyway.
No-one has ever told me, for instance, how the G.S.T. (Goods and Services Tax) makes things better in any of these respects. Oh, yes, I heard a lot of mega-words on this a couple of years ago - but none of it actually told me how it's going to make this country better, or how it's going to make my life better, or the life of a great many ordinary citizens. All it means is that, every time I reach into my pocket, Canberra is dipping its hand in, too - and, once again, the Australian people have been hoodwinked - completely and utterly had, in spite of the "never ever" promise made by John Howard earlier on. One of the great confidence tricks I can recall in Australian politics.
Maybe politicians will rise a little in public esteem when they start addressing issues, and stop blathering and blustering on about modern-day equivalents of the old theological debate about the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin.
U.S. President George W. Bush is again railing against the evils of same-sex marriages
or partnerships, and making out that the honour and decency of the entire
country is at stake in this. He is prepared to take whatever legislative or
constitutional steps it takes to stop gay people from marrying, and he has
criticized "activist judges" who have made rulings which contradict his agenda.
He believes that gay relationships are contrary to the ordained nature of
marriage, and wants to preserve the sanctity of marriage, and is obviously
harking to his own religious beliefs on the subject.
I thought the U.S. was a secular state, with Church and State separated by
constitution. Yet politicians there are always talking about they think God
wants, and are obviously perfectly willing to impose their idea of theocracy on
the entire population, by making it law. I always distrust politicians who
refer to the "sanctity" of traditional institutions.
We see some degree of this religious interference in Australia, too, such
as in the deplorable outcome of the euthanasia debate, where religion imposed
its sometimes ugly and repressive influence. But this sort of thing seems to be
in plague proportions in the U.S. It would seem to be secular state only in
name. (When was the last time a U.S. President openly claimed that he was
agnostic or atheist, or believed or followed any religion other than
Christianity? I can't think of even one such President.)
Note that I didn't even say whether or not I supported some sort of
official recognition of gay partnerships. It doesn't even really matter what I
think about that, and if I have certain ideas, I would not be seeking to impose
them on everyone else. If gay people want some sort of official recognition of
their relationship, who am I to stop them doing so? What I'm talking about here
is not whether gay people should or shouldn't marry; rather, it is whether
people should be able to impose their ideas on such matters on everyone else by
law, just because their religion tells them this is The Truth, handed down by God
Himself from on high.
And, from what I hear about the general attitude on this issue, I certainly
wouldn't want to be gay in America.
The last cicada? The end of civilization?
It's evening now, just before dusk - and, incredibly, I can hear cicadas
chirring outside. It's incredible, because it is 5 February, and this strikes
me as very late for cicadas, which seem to be usually at their most active in
late spring and the earlier part of summer: perhaps November to January, more
It undoubtedly does depend on what the weather is like. Usually, when
people say things like, "It's been a very hot (or cool) summer", or "This
winter's been unusually cold (or dry)", I can't say that it usually seems any
different from any other summer or winter I can remember, and I do sometimes
feel that people often imagine these impressions of what the season was like.
But one impression I have been getting the last few years is that our seasons
seem to be happening later and later in the year. If I think back to my
childhood in the 1960s, I associate the hot months with December to February;
but now it seems to be January to March.
I seem to recall hearing cicadas once in September, one year back in the
1970s, and I don't think I am mistaken in this. Perhaps that was unusually
early, and maybe it was late in that September, and maybe it was unusually warm
that year. But, the last few Septembers, it seemed still so wintery that the
idea of cicadas sounding just seemed absurd.
Just now, the cicadas seem so late that I feel sure they must be the last
cicadas of the season, having their final burst.
So this seems to lend support to my hunch that the seasons are getting
later and later. I can only assume it must be due to the increasing greenhouse
effect disrupting the normal weather patterns. Given that we don't really have
any direct control over such natural cycles, and are not really doing anything
to minimize emissions (not seriously), it's a bit scary to think too closely
about the possible outcome of this. I just hope it really does turn out to have
been a bit of false alarm.
There are those who think the weather changes in natural cycles of many
years anyway, and that the greenhouse alarm is a false alarm; some of them say
if anything an ice age is the danger rather than overheating, because we are
just about due for another ice age anyway.
I don't know the answer to this dilemma. As a species, we are completely
dependent on technology and high-energy consumption, and I can't see this
decreasing. I really do believe humanity will kill itself sooner than turn away
from high energy use and technology - if that really is what the choice is.
Indeed, science writer Isaac Asimov pointed out that it is only because of
high-energy consumption that the world can support the 6 billion or so people it
is currently supporting (after a fashion). He saw the solution not to be
reduction in energy consumption (which he said was impossible without reducing
the population to 1 or 2 billion), but to be more efficient use of energy, which
means more technology, not less - but better and more efficient technology.
And I think I agree with him on this, and am not one of the romanticizing
"back to nature" brigade. I don't think it would be in the least romantic to
spend much of your time shivering in the dark, and to be unable to travel more
than a very few miles from where you live.
Apropos of this, I actually see expansion into space as the main hope
humanity has for an optimistic future; I believe there is a good answer to those
who think space is an outrageous waste of money when there are so many needy
people in the world, and so many things that need doing on this planet. While
it may be possible, at least in theory, to so efficiently manage resources (and
limit population growth!) on earth so that we can have a reasonable way of life,
if not a prosperous one, I don't think it is even remotely likely to happen in
practice. This would not allow much margin for error, and politics and greed
would completely upset the delicate equations that would have to be satisfied to
allow this minimally optimistic outcome.
If we can develop space technology to the point where we can mine resources
from the moon or (especially) from the asteroids, then it may completely change
and enlarge the equations which set absolute limits to human expansion (in
numbers or prosperity).
To be sure, it won't directly give much room for expansion of human
numbers - it won't allow billions of us, or even millions of us, to move to the
moon, to Mars, to the Jovian moons, or to space colonies or habitats any time soon. I might just spend a little time exploring the issues involved in a mass evacuation of humanity, to show that the benefits of space exploration, while potentially real and huge, will not include the benefit of significant room for population growth any time soon.
I don't know how many people you could reasonably transfer in a single spaceship at a time - but I would hazard a guess of somewhere between 100 and 1,000. And I think we can assume that, to give any significant relief to population pressures on earth, we would have to be talking about moving at least tens of millions of people (for moderate, localized relief), or hundreds of millions of people (for significant global relief). I will be optimistic, and assume each spaceship could carry 1,000 emigrants, not 100, and see where this leads us.
Using this scenario, it would take 10,000 spaceship journeys to move 10 million people. Of course the ships would be reusable, so we don't have to build 10,000 spaceships, which I wouldn't think possible anyway; rather, we would shuttle a smaller number of ships back and forth many times. How many ships we would need would depend on where people were emigrating to, and thus how far the ships had to go to transfer them. Using any reasonably forseeable spaceship drive, a journey could take anything from days to years, depending on what the destination was.
If we imagine the ridiculously optimistic scenario of one thousand spaceships taking off every day, we could move 1 billion people (which would really relieve the population stress hugely) in a mere 2.74 years. But I don't see how we could even manage 1,000 journeys a year (which would move 100 million people in a century). 100 journeys a year seems conceivable within the next century or so, if humanity can stop wasting trillions of dollars of resources in fighting wars and causing untold suffering, and cooperate whole-heartedly in a global space program; and 100 journeys a year could move 10 million people in a century (to give localized relief); but it would take a millennium to move 100 million people (to give global relief).
If we could find or construct somewhere for 100 million people to live (assuming that as many as that number might volunteer, since I wouldn't be wanting to force people into exile from their own planet), it would certainly buy us a bit of time in which to sort out the mess on earth - but I suspect it would give us far less time than the millennium it would take to move those people, given the tendencies of exponential population growth. This is why I see no conceivable way space exploration can give direct relief to population pressures.
Moreover, all this assumes that there is somewhere off this planet where hundreds of millions of people can live in a decent manner, or that we can construct such a place, and do it quickly enough - I've been talking purely about the problems of transporting them there. However, I find it very difficult to see how we could find or construct somewhere for that many people to live within any time scale less than a millennium or so - and we have to solve the population growth problem in far less time than that - probably in less than a century, even - if we are not to self-destruct.
No, I think the population problem has to be solved on earth, even given any
conceivable, scientifically possible technology. But access to resources from
outside the earth would possibly allow the earth to support a (moderately)
greater population, and at potentially a far better standard of living, and
would give humanity more of a margin for errors, greed, politics, business, and
so on. It might even allow us to have wars from time to time without putting
all of humanity in danger - if we really must continue indulging in such
For those who are interested in looking further at such ideas, I recommend
the following books:
||A Step Farther Out
| (in Volumes 1 and 2, at least in the paperback edition I have)
The Baxter, being recently published, is still available; the Pournelle is
probably out of print now, but there are plenty of on-line avenues through which
a used copy can be sought. Or I'm sure I've seen it frequently in second-hand book-shops with a large science-fiction range. (The book is non-fiction, but is often shelved with the science-fiction, because Pournelle is also a prolific science-fiction writer.)
Pournelle points out that there may be a limited window of opportunity in which to get into space and its potential riches. If we fritter away our resources in endless bickering and warring, and sheer wastefulness, we may reach a point of such neediness here on earth, and such scarcity of certain raw materials, that we may never be able to gather together the resources needed to get into space. And then we will be confined to earth for ever - never to escape from it at any future time. We will be uncomfortably like the Easter Islanders who destroyed all their timber resources, and closed off for ever any chances of ever building canoes and escaping from their prison; and they ultimately died out altogether.
Without any such exploitation of space, I would predict a very miserable
future indeed for humanity - even if we do survive long-term - especially if we
survive long-term; and the weather changes we're currently seeing may be just
the first harbinger of this long, miserable, dark tunnel which has no light at
the end of it, but which instead slopes down more and more, eventually plunging
helplessly into an infinite, black abyss.
It never rains, but it pours....
A week or more has gone by without my adding to this web log, thinking that
I had burned out - just run out of new things to say. And all of a sudden, I
read Saturday's Herald Sun (Melbourne daily tabloid paper), and seethe a bit
over various incidents of injustice, oppression, and stupid bureaucracy (or official greed, maybe) that I read about - and I can't resist having a swipe here and there at the ocean of stupidity I am surrounded by, even though I know it's like trying to fight the tide.
Jokes can now be a serious criminal offence - particular
words are illegal.
Recently, a man was in a plane, and was asked by the air hostess to put his
briefcase in an overhead locker. Apparently drunk, he jokingly replied, "Is
that because there's a bomb inside it?"
I can't believe what happened next: he was dragged off the plane, handed to
police and charged with an offence - and eventually fined $900 for some charge
such as "recklessly causing public alarm".
Well, I agree that it is slightly tasteless to make jokes of this sort, in
the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York in 2001 (but, to my mind, not
outrageously so - no worse than poking fun at religion or telling Irish jokes,
which I have myself done many times, although only with people I know won't take
offence at such jokes). It is certainly rather stupid to make jokes about bombs
when you're in a plane or at an airport, if you are aware that people have been
jailed for such remarks. But isn't it obvious to anyone with an ounce of common
sense that such remarks are merely a joke? Does anyone really believe a genuine
terrorist would be so stupid as to give himself away by making such remarks?
And it is incredible that we are so paranoid that our authorities can take
an obvious joke as a real threat to commit a terrorist act, and apply the full
weight of the now very oppressive laws in this area against them. What is
perhaps most astonishing of all is that we as a society seem to accept this as
necessary to guard against terrorism.
Somehow, in all this, our sense of humour, and a sense of proportion, have
completely died. It does not bode well for the future of our society, as far as
I can see.
If we had a balanced attitude to such matters, I would have thought a more reasonable response to this man would be along the lines of: "No - not funny. I know you're only joking; but in the current climate, we must warn you not to make remarks like this, until we as a society regain our sense of proportion." But, the way things are, it looks as if uttering the very word "bomb", in any context, could be effectively illegal in certain places, such as airports and planes.
Not directly related, but continuing the "jokes are a criminal offence"
theme - I believe racial and religious vilification laws enacted in the state of
Victoria by Steve Bracks' current Labor government a few years back can be
applied to the telling of jokes. It is now officially a crime to tell Irish
jokes, or to poke fun at the pomposity of the more fanatical end of religion
(which needs it, in my opinion).
I never heard such a load of bunkum in all my life - political correctness
gone totally crazy. How are they possibly going to enforce such stupid laws? -
there wouldn't be enough police officers to enforce it, even if every Australian
joined the police force - and I bet a lot of police tell such jokes amongst
themselves back at the station, anyway.
It perfectly illustrates that the law can only too easily be a complete
ass - and if it is, then like an ass is how it deserves to be treated.
Brushing hair deemed dangerous driving by traffic cop,
and threatened woman's career.
A woman was brushing her hair while driving, and was seen doing this by a
police officer. He pulled her over, and asked her if she knew why she was being
pulled over, to which she innocently said "No". The officer told her that he had seen her brushing her hair, and that this could be deemed dangerous driving, and that she could be fined. Quite stunned and shocked, she felt like a criminal, and cried.
This is okay as far as it goes, maybe, although possibly the cop was being a bit hard. I don't know if the woman was doing it at a red light; if so, and she stopped brushing immediately the lights turned green, I would not regard this at all as dangerous driving. If she were driving at the time, one-handed, it could be dangerous, although I would not myself put it quite in the category of drink driving or gross speeding. Still, you probably shouldn't brush your hair while driving, shouldn't use non-hands-free mobile phones (which is actually illegal), and maybe shouldn't fiddle around changing radio stations and the like.
So far, this is just a straightforward case of a minor driving offence. But further complications arising from this incident lead us into farce and bureaucratic bungling, letting things get out of proportion, and complete insensitivity to human feelings. You see, the woman wanted to become a teacher, and was going around trying to find universities that could accept her into a suitable course. And one she had booked into suspended her, saying she could not attend while criminal charges were hanging over her.
I never heard anything so ridiculous in my life: pulled up for brushing her
hair, and it's a criminal charge, like she embezzled money, stole, and so on? A
serious criminal charge, a serious slur on her character, that deserves
suspension from a university course? Give me a break! She's just an ordinary
human being who made a simple, slightly silly mistake, and had the misfortune to
be seen by a cop who probably had nothing better to do for the moment.
Fortunately she managed to get into an alternative university to study, but I don't know whether it was really as good for what she wanted to study as the other university who wouldn't let her join her classes.
Words fail me to respond adequately to such stupidity and pettiness.
Let's sink our boots into disabled single mothers -
we must find victims to blame for the country's ills.
Another vulnerable victim of pompous officialdom: a single mother with a
young child is facing nearly 6 months' jail, because of $15,000 of unpaid
parking fines and municipal council legal costs fighting her case, which she
can't possibly afford to pay. It seems she had parked in the street near her
house repeatedly in the late 1990s, and started getting parking tickets. She
applied to the council for a parking permit, thinking it was reasonable that she
should be able to park outside her own house, and the council kept replying that
the permit was in the mail. She apparently thought this was good enough, and
continued parking there, and ignored the "courtesy" letters she got from the
council from time to time. (Perhaps not the best move - maybe she should have
gone to them at this point and tried to discuss it reasonably, although I
wouldn't be optimistic about her chances of actually getting reasonable
negotiation out of a bullying council.)
Well, I suppose it's possible she fabricated this story to avoid
penalties - but I would rather trust an ordinary battler like her than many
council officials, who only too often these days seem to like bullying hapless
residents with ridiculous municipal by-laws, and absurd restrictions on
completely innocuous behaviour. They have an ugly record in recent years,
probably as part of a push to raise revenue - through fines and permits if
necessary - and I don't really trust them at all.
This sort of thing is almost meat and potatoes to television shows such as
Channel 9's A Current Affair, which has been accused of sensationalism and
populism in highlighting stories like this. That may be true - but that doesn't
detract from the obvious injustice that is brought to light in some of these
television reports. But they love presenting stories of ordinary, powerless
battlers taking on the giants of business and government - and, for me at least,
it is delicious when the battlers win, as sometimes they do.
The woman offered to pay the fines in small weekly installments out of her
disability pension, but the council rejected the offer. I suppose they felt
they couldn't wait that long to squeeze the money out of her, and they took her
to court. She declared bankruptcy to try to avoid the fines, because she
couldn't pay them anyway, and would go to jail, and feared losing her young
child. Anyone with an ounce of humanity in them would have to feel for her
plight, regardless of what laws and regulations say.
There were a few rounds of legal action, and she won this round and lost
that. But the outcome of it was that the High Court ruled that the fines could
stand, and bankruptcy didn't affect them. It rejected her argument that the
fines were invalid, because they were not issued by a judge or magistrate, but
by a computer on behalf of the council.
As I write this, the outcome is still yet to be resolved. The woman fears
going to jail and being parted from her son, because she just can't pay the
fines and legal costs awarded against her.
When are our officials, who are supposed to represent us, going to get a
bit of common-sense and humanity to them? Do we as voters perhaps not take this
sort of thing into account enough when we decide our vote? I try to, but it is
very difficult anyway to know the truth about candidates for election when they
are spin-doctored so much and so many lies made by them or on behalf of them are
foisted upon us.
We truly live in Orwellian times when it is impossible, perhaps even in
principle, to know the truth of anything you didn't see with your own eyes. For
this reason, I vehemently disagree with the popular platitude: "A nation gets
the government it deserves".
Baby talk crucial to babies' brain development and
appreciation of the arts.
While some people (including myself) may find cooing and ga-ga-ga baby-talk
silly and undignified, a researcher in Britain has found that such talk is
apparently even more important to the development of a baby's brain than we had
It was known to be an early step in teaching babies the skills associated
with speech - but the professor goes further and claims it to be a necessity for
the proper development of the baby's brain, and may be crucial to later
acquiring an appreciation of arts such as music, literature, and poetry. A
software program has apparently found patterns in common between these arts and
the gurgling, goo-goo baby talk he was studying.
This makes me feel uncomfortable, actually. It's only an academic thing to
me, since I am not a father, and never will be. This is very fortunate, since I
am sure I would be a very bad father. Intellectually, the professor's
conclusions sound reasonable, and intellectually, I can believe we should
goo-goo to our babies, if it helps their proper development. Yet emotionally I
am extremely repelled by it, and cringe to hear mothers cooing to their babies -
and I can never do it myself to babies I meet casually, and in fact just can't
interact with babies much at all. They might as well be Martians, or even some
alien species that communicates by dilating their eye pupils, or something, for
all that I can communicate with them. It's a wonder my nephews and niece seem
to like me okay, since I hardly interacted with them when they were babies -
which is presumably the time they start getting to know people such as siblings,
aunts, uncles, and so on.
I imagine my feelings are related to the "macho", tough male image that
males in many Western societies (including my own) are unspokenly expected to
conform to. No-one says so - but in places like school, some work places, and
other venues, boys or men who show emotions easily can be looked down upon,
regarded as weak and wimpy. I do not think I would strike people as obviously
having even a small amount of that "macho" image or personality - but it is
quite likely that in more subtle ways it has influenced my feelings about
certain things, and aspects of my behaviour.
Intellectually, I think this is all stupid, and that men should be encouraged to show their emotions. The world - and especially arenas such as big business and politics - would be infinitely better if the new, more sensitive masculine culture that a few ground-breaking men live by could become mainstream.
Yet emotionally I cannot accept it. I cannot show emotions myself in many
situations, and what I believe about it intellectually makes no difference at
all. I have heard people say that recognizing a problem or limitation is
half-way to fixing it - and I don't believe this at all. I regard myself as a
rational person, perhaps more than average, and think of myself as a person who
can, at least in theory, change his view on a matter upon encountering good
evidence - yet I am completely irrational on some matters, believing them
intellectually to be probably true, yet completely unable to live it, because
emotionally it feels yucky or slimy, or unbearably maudlin or weak. At the
least, I believe it is rational to acknowledge this, and to accept that I am
being irrational here - if you understand what I mean by that outwardly
There's a huge amount wrong with masculine culture in our society. I
probably don't share a lot of it in practice - but evidently I am affected by it
in some less obvious ways, for it to cause these intellect vs. emotion
dichotomies at times in my life, of the sort I've just described. I don't know
what I can do about it - maybe nothing, because I have actually read convincing
reasons why this emotionally less tender aspect of men could be genetically programmed into the males our species. But, although I can't rationally explain it beyond that, I would almost kill myself with the pressure not to cry in front of others, rather than just let it all pour out, even though some psychologists say it is much healthier to do so.
And I still won't be able to goo-goo to babies, even after reading of this
professor's research into baby-talk.
Petition over obscene song played in supermarket.
It's an unpleasant fact of life that supermarkets and many other businesses
and institutions feel the need to bombard us constantly with a barrage of noise
that they evidently regard as pleasant music. Apprently they believe our
fragile minds would crack up under the pressures of modern life if not soothed
with a constant, unending stream of bubble-gum music oozing from the
loudspeakers in their ceilings.
However, a teenaged shopper caused a stir recently when he complained about
a song that was played in his local supermarket in the Melbourne suburb of
Preston. He claimed that the lyrics were obscene, and he had young children
with him, and was disturbed at them being exposed to this obscenity.
He decided to embark on a one-man campaign against this, and started a
petition, which many shoppers eagerly signed. The supermarket manager
apologized, saying it was a genuine oversight - and actually signed the petition
Smart move, public-relations-wise - and possibly sincere. And I have no
doubt that it probably was an unintended slip-up.
But unfortunately, from my point of view, this masks another related issue which I would like to see addressed: and that is that shops and all manner of other public institutions and venues should be allowed to inflict this noise on people anyway - even when it is not obscene. I believe it amounts to an unacceptable invasion of privacy.
I think the emotional and mental climate of our fractured society is not unconnected with the fact that things are organized to ensure we get wall-to-wall distraction from the urge to think and reflect on life. This is achieved by various visual and auditory means, such as advertising billboards, flashing screens, constant bombardment from media such as radio and television, unceasing music or other noise from radios and the like, and so on.
I have fancied at times that modern shopping centres are deliberately
designed with a complex geographical layout, with angles and shapes that are
difficult to comprehend when you walk in there, so that you can lose your
orientation, and even get lost in a sense. I seem to have an in-built sense of
direction, so that I usually know where north is - yet modern covered shopping
centres are one of the few places where I can completely lose this sense, and
have no idea what direction I am facing.
I don't think I've ever heard anyone point out that the design of shopping
centres may sometimes be intentionally disorienting, and in fact I don't have
any hard evidence for it; yet it strikes me as another example of the way we are
deliberately bombarded with superfluous sense information. I can only think it
is intended to ensure that the populace never get a quiet moment to themselves
to reflect on the deeper issues of life, to just enjoy a bit of peace and quiet,
to consider what makes life worthwhile anyway (if it still is, that is).
Instead of such introverted impulses, the powers that be just want us to spend,
spend, spend, and the whole visual and auditory structure of modern life seems
designed to encourage that, and to discourage thinking for oneself or engaging
in introspection about deeper issues.
Back to the supermarket and the supposedly obscene song: the manager insisted that the supermarket chain's "in-store play-list" (don't you just love modern jargon?!) was designed around middle-of-the-road musical content of general appeal to the public - which I think is a nonsense. There is no such thing as music of general appeal: musical tastes (and dislikes) are as diverse and divided as ethnic, ideological, political, cultural, or religious differences, and no type of music will fail to irritate some people.
Perhaps in the more foolish years of my youth I had a tendency to regard the type of music I like and know the best, music of the European classical tradition from over the last 150 years or so, as somehow having this kind of universality of expression of value, if not popularity. But I don't find this idea convincing now, and in fact there is no style of music I would accord this status to, as an objective standard. (I might still feel it to some extent, still have a sense in which this type of music sets the standard - but that is another matter, being merely my own outlook.)
But, whether or not I still believed this, I would find it merely crass to try to push this view, or the music itself, on other people - although I have been guilty of doing this in the dim years of my past.
It would just be out of the question now to actively push this view - and I do not want to have classical music playing in all the shopping malls everywhere. In fact, I would dislike it even more than having pop music there: nothing would be more guaranteed to make me hate my very favourite composers than to have to hear them everywhere I went while in supermarkets, shopping centres, and so on - how to hate Beethoven in 5 easy steps, or something. It is bad enough to occasionally hear music I like in such situations - usually in jazzed-up versions with drums and syncopation added, and probably all the complicated bits removed, so that only the 16 catchiest bars are left, and repeated several times in various permutations.
It is interesting to see the obscene-lyrics issue raised like this; but I also regret that it completely masks this broader issue of whether this noise should be needlessly foisted on everyone in the first place.
I do not believe the trite platitude that music is the universal language
that transcends all cultural or racial barriers. Music is as specific to
culture as any other aspects are, and although I am highly educated in music, it
is firmly within the European/western classical tradition, and I find music from other cultures as difficult to appreciate as anyone else might, and maybe more.
Music may sometimes cut across certain barriers - but that's only because it has different barriers of its own, which don't follow the other barriers; and this may give the superficial appearance of transcending barriers and being a kind of universal language, as the cliché has it. I may be able to enjoy classical music in common with some Europeans, for instance, and you might say that cuts across linguistic and racial barriers. But it is highly unlikely that I would enjoy the same type of music that teenagers at a party or workers at the local pub would enjoy, even though they might live within hundreds of yards of me. It could be said that the musical barrier in this case is all but unbreakable.
So I do not believe music is a universal language - and I think the
supermarkets are fooling themselves if they think the music they play (whatever
style they use) is going to be of general appeal to all or most of their
Amusingly, the McDonald's fast-food chain have actually used music to deliberately repel people. Some of their restaurants have had a problem with teenagers hanging around and engaging in fighting or vandalism or other disorderly behaviour. As part of a campaign to induce them to go somewhere else, they took to playing sedate classical music records around the entrance to the restaurant, knowing that a lot of young people just wouldn't find this cool. (I also remember reading once about some shopping centre that used bright pink lighting in a similar way, apparently having found that teenagers don't like hanging around in pink light!)
Pig lard as a terrorist deterrent? (Let me stop
laughing, and take a look at this serious matter.)
The Israeli police have embarked on a policy of hanging bags of pig lard on buses, trains, and other likely bombing targets, as a deterrent to Muslim suicide bombers (don't laugh too hard - this is for real, and completely serious!).
Apparently it is hoped that Muslim terrorists wanting to blow up buses (and
themselves at the same time) will think twice about it, because of the
possibility that their bodies will be defiled by being splattered with pig lard
as it blows up too, along with the bus and its passengers. You see, Muslim
tradition says that you are denied entry to heaven upon death if you touch a pig
before you die. And it appears that the terrorists believe this, too - even
though, without this complication, they see killing the infidels as giving an
automatic ticket to heaven, with 70 virgins awaiting their every desire. (I do
wonder if this is the virgins' hell, and what their heaven is like!)
In between laughing at such human folly and superstition, I hardly know how
to react to this. I am torn between laughing at, and being repelled by, a God
apparently so petty as to deny otherwise deserving people entry to paradise -
simply because they have had physical contact with a pig, considered unclean by Islam. I mean, gods don't come much more petty and small-minded than this. I find it incredible that millions of people can believe such things. But it certainly points out the more ridiculous extremes of human superstition, and shows that people rarely got themselves into trouble by underestimating their God's pettiness and vindictiveness.
I do not know much at all about Islam, and I hope this view represents only the lunatic fringe of that faith, not the mainstream of it.
Jews don't approve of pigs either: but apparently Jewish law does not
forbid the use of pig lard in this way, if it is designed to save lives. They
are not eating it, after all - which I gather is what counts to Jews.
I try to be open-minded about all religions or spiritual outlooks, but I do not always succeed; possibly I am now showing an example of my failure. However, some belief systems I really do find hard to take seriously as statements of spiritual truth. Maybe they are culture, and acceptable on that level - but the problem is that religions always claim to be objective truth, and not just a cultural outlook or tradition.
And some religions or belief systems repel me, in spite of my better intentions, just because of what they claim to be true. The inhumanity and callousness of some doctrines (in many different religious traditions) can be quite stunning at times; and I have to say that, in general, I don't have an awful lot of time for organized, doctrinized religion of any sort - especially where the view of God is petty, narrow, and vindictive, and they have no concept of inclusiveness of all humanity - and especially where the members try to force their ways on everyone else, including by the use of making laws (in cases when they have that much political influence).
I've heard more liberal Muslims try to explain how Islam really is (in their view), and how the popular image of it we get is just coming from fanatics: the equivalent of fanatical, right-wing, Bible-thumping Christian fundamentalists from the Deep North of Australia or the Deep South Bible belt of the U.S. But these liberal Muslims don't convince me, somehow - just hearing or reading items in the news (which is about the closest I have ever come to the Islamic faith), I really do get the impression that, in terms of sheer numbers, this possibly fanatical type of faith is the central, mainstream part of Islam. A few Muslims I heard speaking recently in interviews, including a female gay feminist, impressed me rather - but I wonder how long it will be before they are fatwa'ed by some pompous, self-righteous Ayatollah somewhere in Iran.
I'm sorry - but I find it difficult to regard ideas such as that contact with a pig will deny you entry to heaven as anything more than superstition.
The use of pig lard in this way by Jewish authorities is probably not
superstition, but a hard-headed, practical measure calculated to ward off the
terrorists - some of whom would appear to be the superstitious ones, if they
think contact with one of God's creatures contaminates them so deeply that they
cannot enter heaven. (Well, Allah did create pigs, didn't He? If not,
how else would Muslims account for their existence in God's world? But then, I guess Allah - or Brahma, or Jehovah, or the Great Spirit, or the Source, or any other God that people believe in - also created rats, fleas, ants, flies, cockroaches, and other life-forms many find distasteful or unclean - not to mention smallpox, cancer, plague, motor-neurone disease, and many other horrors that beset humanity - which certainly leads us down murky and troubled areas of theology - which I will not follow here.)