(M.J.E. / Writings / Web Log)

Web log of
Michael Edwards

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- or: My thoughts about web logs as I newly find out what they are

      I've decided to start a web log, as an experiment - just to see if it works, if it is a medium that suits me. I seem always to have wanted to write in some form, and earlier efforts to write fiction seem to have come to nothing - so I sometimes consider other forms of writing.
      My own web site contains specific writing on topics of interest to me, and this includes personal material, where appropriate. However, I often seem to have an opinion on matters of more or less public interest, and enjoy talking about them, or writing about them (for instance, in e-mails to friends), and one natural way to carry this further would be a web log. (I prefer this name to the ugly and slangy "blog".)
      I do not really know enough about web logging to know whether I am going about it the right way. I have just done a bit of researching on Google to find out a bit about it, and some sources say you learn it by just doing it, and don't seem to put a lot of stress on rules. Nonetheless, some general trends or practices do seem to exist in this area; and it is quite probable that I will not conform to these in all respects, for various reasons. If I learn more later on, I may decide there are good reasons for these customs, and may adopt them - although I do not necessarily do things just because everyone else does.
      The entry for "weblog" at Wikipedia seems to be an especially good introduction to what web logs are. Another page is the entry for "blog" on The Word Spy.
      Here are some of the characteristics I have so far noticed about web logs, plus comments on why I may not always do these things myself:

    * They contain commentary on matters of public interest, although they can contain almost anything the author chooses.
      Well, yes, this is more or less what I intend to do on this page. I do intend to comment mainly on what is loosely described as "current affairs", the kinds of items that get mentioned in newspapers or magazines; but I will freely comment on them from my own personal perspective. I do not pretend that my comments will be impartial and unbiased. I do not intend to talk about my own personal life, however, except insofar as that may at times influence the comments I make on public matters.
      Note that, in what I just said, I focused on "commenting". This page does not claim to be a news source, and, while I will try to get my facts right (and will go back and correct any errors I discover later), I will not necessarily seek primary sources for facts, nor try to be comprehensive in finding all relevant details - and I will often, if I can't recall exactly where or how I heard something, refer to it in a less direct way. For instance, I might suggest that the "government" is considering a policy if I can't remember or find out reasonably quickly exactly which official or minister advocated it; I will use indirect speech if I can't remember the exact wording in which someone said something. I am not a journalist, do not have the knowledge, resources, or time to research everything to the depth a professional journalist might - so I hope my more casual approach will suffice.
      This looseness would be unacceptable in a document claiming to be news, which must be far more precise - but I may at times consider it to suffice as a basis for me to comment on, if my indirect paraphrase of the facts does not seem to be disputable as to its gist, or, when it is disputable, I have presented it in a way that makes my own view quite evident. I am freely letting my personal viewpoint, even bias, show - but I am endeavouring never to be misleading about any issue or fact. However, you'd best go to any of a number of reputable news sources if you just want the bare-bones facts (one of the main on-line news sources I rely on is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's service); rather, comment, and a perspective on those issues are what I have to offer.
      It follows on from this that much of what I say will be my own personal opinion, not absolute, objective fact, and as such may be disputed by reasonable people of other points of view. If it seems reasonably clear that something I say is a personal view, I will just present it as a statement, and not bother to say all the time "in my opinion", "I think", and so on. While such qualifications may come naturally into the flow of my writing, I think it would get very tiresome indeed if I qualified every second sentence in such a way.

    * They contain links to other web sites.
      I will probably do this if a web site is relevant to what I'm talking about, although sharing my own thoughts will probably be the main focus. I'm not going to try to shoehorn links of marginal relevance in just for the sake of having plenty of links, just because web logs are "supposed" to contain lots of links.

    * They are sometimes interactive: that is, the author posts entries on the web site, and there are facilities for readers to post their own responses.
      I would like to do this, but cannot for the time being, for a number of reasons: I do not have the necessary software I assume you need to do this, and do not know how to do this; also, for the time being, I am going to use my own web site, and there are space limitations on that. If I later learn of better ways of dealing with these problems, I will consider making other arrangements.

    * Entries are made fairly frequently, often daily.
      I may not always manage this. I'm not going to talk about very personal or private things here, relating to my own life (although giving my own thoughts on topics is personal to an extent). But I will mention here that I am prone to depression, and, in any activity, I tend to come and go. Quite typically, I work at something feverishly, and may be very productive for a brief time - then I may burn out, and drop the thing for weeks or even longer. If this happens here, this is the reason why. I mention it here only because I know this is likely to happen, and you will notice if you read this page any more than just once or twice.

    * Special software appears to be sometimes used for web logs.
      I won't be using such software, at least for the forseeable future. I don't even know how it works, and can only assume that it automates some of the features commonly found in web logs.
      I write all my web pages in a simple text editor, manually coding the H.T.M.L., without even using an H.T.M.L. editor. The main reason I do not use H.T.M.L. editors is that they seem (from example pages I've seen) to produce bloated, inefficient, unreadable code which I cannot easily change directly - and this limitation is not one I can live with, even if using H.T.M.L. editors might save me time by automating the production of complicated structures such as tables. If I want to make some little change, I must be able to modify the code directly.
      Also, my Internet service provider imposes a total size limit to my web site, and I cannot afford to fill up huge amounts of that space with padding, or bloated code. Also, I would even fear the possibility of my pages being totally mangled, as happened with an experimental version of this very page when I tried editing it in Microsoft's appalling "FrontPage Express" (version - a piece of software that ought to be banned, in my opinion. My tables were completely scrambled, and location labels for particular points in the page (which must be unique, because they are points links on other pages point to) were multiplied many times, for who knows what reasons. Apart from that, the inefficient coding nearly doubled the total size of this page.
      I would imagine that web-logging software might well tend to be afflicted in similar ways. Well, I don't know; but I'm going to be cautious, and assume so until I somehow find out otherwise.
      If one day I learn of benefits to using specialized software, I may adopt and use it. I grew up, computer-wise, on the command-line-driven DOS operating system, and I feel most ill at ease with graphic operating systems like Windows or the Macintosh, and don't even trust them much, as to reliability. (I have had Windows crash more often in one week than DOS did in nearly a decade of exclusive use, so I don't think my mistrust is solely arising from my personal dislike of this system.) Because of this, adopting new software is quite a major undertaking for me, and I don't do it casually, without good reason. And I am willing to bet that a lot of web-logging software will be intensely graphical in its user interface, and require me to wreck my fingers or wrist by using the mouse hundreds of times per hour - which will be yet another thing to repel me.

    * There are special "blogging" web sites where some people post their web logs.
      I won't be doing this for the time being - simply because I know nothing about how it works, how much it costs, and so on. One day I might do so - I don't know.
      I assume there is a cost to using these services - or else that individuals' web logs have to bear advertising. The monetary cost may or may not deter me, depending on what that cost is - and the idea of bearing advertising is quite distasteful to me, and I really don't want to do it - although it might make a difference how intrusive in style it was, and what was being advertised. I might grudgingly accept it if it were not too intrusive, and the products or services being advertised did not offend me unduly.
      Also, there's this: nowadays, a lot of software and places such as forms where you enter and edit text are extremely and unreasonably prescriptive about details of style and text formatting that should be left up to the writer to decide. For instance, the commonest problem in this area is that you simply cannot indent lines of text, or if you can do so initially, the indents may be removed in the final result. Sometimes line-breaks can be lost, too.
      If particular (or all) web-logging sites interfere with elements of formatting in this way, I will not be willing to use those sites - so that would enter into my decision, too. I have certain ways I lay out my writing to make its structure clear and appearance pleasing, and I am not receptive to the prospect of having those ways seriously interfered with by software. I think a large proportion of web pages, with their absolute flat level of text, all pressed up against the left margin, and little or no hierarchical structure of text sections visible to the eye, look rather humdrum, and occasionally pretty awful. I far prefer the printed-book model of text arrangement, and use it in all my web pages - with no help from the design of H.T.M.L., incidentally, which appears to be trying its hardest in its very design to make this very difficult and fiddly to do.

    * The entries are labelled by the date they are written, like a diary.
      I am going to do this - but with one important difference: I am not going to present the entries in reverse chronological order, starting with the most recent, and the first entries coming last. This has become very common on the Internet, and it amazes me that such an illogical, back-to-front practice should become almost universal, in a whole lot of different places. Before the Internet, I had never heard of such a thing in any other kind of writing, and I must admit that seeing this so frequently actually annoys me rather. (Well, perhaps there is one other place I've seen this: on career résumés, with all jobs listed in reverse order. The ones I've seen were on web sites, but I would imagine that using reverse order has probably been a well-established practice in this area, far pre-dating the Internet. However, I don't regard the practice as suitable for standard use, even if it is preferred in certain situations. And I don't prefer it myself, even in those accepted situations like career résumés.)
      While I can appreciate that this is convenient for those who want to visit the web page and immediately read the most recent entry, I would point out that if entries are in (forward) chronological order, it takes only two or three additional keystrokes - End, then Up-Arrow once or twice - to go to the bottom of the page, then to scroll up a bit to read the most recent entry, which properly belongs at the end.
      Things happen from the past to the present to the future - not the other way, as this perverse ordering seems to suggest. If you want to read a number of entries, you are likely to want to read them in order - but with this new arrangement, you would have to go to the bottom of the page and literally read upwards - a most unnatural and unintuitive way of reading.
      If reverse ordering is considered an essential part of a web log, and a document just isn't a web log if it is not reverse-ordered, then it's just too bad. In that case, you can regard my effort as "a document resembling a web log in some respects" than as a proper "web log". It really doesn't matter if some choose to play with the meanings of words here.
      If you really want to read the web log in reverse order, then you will (quite appropriately, I think) have to scroll through it in reverse order.
      What I will do, as a concession to this premium placed on going immediately to the most recent entry, is that I will provide a link to the most recent entry at the top of the page. I will insert a coded label at the end of the document which the link will point to, and each time I write a new entry, I will place the label immediately above that entry. (This label is the one that Microsoft's FrontPage Express multiplied a dozen times or so, and scattered in various places throughout the code.)
      The web log will be on a single page to begin with, but if that gets too long and unwieldy, I will devise some convenient method of splitting the content into several pages - and I will move the "most recent entry" label appropriately when that happens.

      Finally, although a web log is meant to be current and topical, I am going to withhold entries for a short time to begin with, until I have found out how well I can keep this up, and how much I have to say on a regular basis. During this time I may seek feedback from a number of people I know, to get a range of opinions about whether I am at least approximately going the right way.
      I would look a little silly if I put up a web log, then carried it on only for a few days or weeks, then burned out, with nothing more to say - hence the need for this initial cautiousness. I will post it publicly when I feel confident that it will work, and I can keep going, at least occasionally. I can't say in advance how long this will be - but you will be able to see how long it will be by the time you read this.
      Therefore, the first entries will be read some days or weeks after they were written - and, no doubt, after the topics they discuss have ceased to be "hot". So be it: I have to ease myself into this in the early stages.
      I hope, dear reader, that you enjoy this, and if you have any feedback - any thoughts on the design and intent of this page, or on the actual issues I discuss - I would be very glad to hear from you about it.

Michael Edwards,
Victoria, Australia.

E-mail me.

      If you need an explanation for the strange appearance of the e-mail address which will appear when you activate the e-mail link, you can read more about spam-blocking measures I am using on my e-mail address on this web site; here, you will find out exactly what you will need to do to make the e-mail address work properly.

Sunday, 18

Michael Jackson late for court.

      I do not follow the affairs of pop stars closely, although of course I cannot help but hear a bit about the child molestation charges against Michael Jackson. But I hear so much stuff about this over and over again, in so many variations, that I start to tune out a bit after a little while.
      What drew my attention back was the recent report that Michael Jackson was 21 minutes late for his court hearing, and that the judge rebuked him for it, almost like a headmaster ticking off a naughty schoolboy. The judge indicated that this was an insult to the court, and that Jackson had started off on the wrong foot.
      Perhaps I imagine it, but I can see an implication in this that perhaps the judge hadn't intended to convey - and that is that the outcome of the hearing could possibly be affected by the small details of Jackson's behaviour, such as punctuality, and whether he showed due respect to the court. I have no opinion so far about whether Jackson is guilty or not; but I hope I am simply imagining this inference.
      I assume a jury will actually decide guilt after hearing all the evidence; but a judge can still influence the outcome of a hearing by the decisions he makes about admissibility of evidence, and by the way he instructs the jury. And of course it is the judge who decides the sentence if the accused is convicted.
      It would be disturbing, in my opinion, if this could be affected by trivial details of the accused's behaviour. One would hope that the judge would, in the way he handles the trial, be guided solely by proper adherence to procedure, and that Jackson's innocence or guilt decided purely on the actual evidence that comes out during the trial. Could a trial judge be influenced against a defendant because he or she thinks the defendant is not punctilious in following the rules of court procedure, or doesn't (in the judge's opinion) show enough overt respect to the court?
      I hope not. Later, Jackson's lawyer explained that the reason for Jackson's lateness was that he was mobbed by thousands of adoring fans on his way to court, and that this delayed him - which sounds an entirely reasonable and convincing explanation for the lateness. The judge appears not to have considered this, or chose to ignore it. Jackson's lawyer showed in the way he responded that he took the court's criticism seriously, and he apologized to the court and said that it would not happen again. I would hope the judge could accept this explanation and apology without prejudice.
      Counter to this, a report I heard later said that Jackson spent 10 minutes sitting in his car before entering the court. So this makes it sound as if he was not hurrying to try to avoid being late. Still, I haven't heard why he spent that time sitting in the car.
      As for respect to the court: I would not assume that lateness automatically insults the court and shows lack of respect, and would regard that as only a value judgement the judge chose to make. Perhaps some people will respect the courts more than others, but that is a personal matter for them to decide. Obviously it would not be wise for a defendant, if he feels contempt for the court, to openly show it - but, at least in the reports I heard, I did not detect anything in Jackson's or his lawyer's words that indicated lack of respect.
      But perhaps the judge meant something else: perhaps he didn't mean that he would personally take a dim view of Jackson if he continued to turn up late, didn't mean he would become prejudiced against him; maybe "the bad start" the judge said Jackson had made consisted of the impression this would leave on a jury - and it may be a valid point. I feel that, if I were on a jury, I would try to decide the case solely on the evidence, and ignore irrelevant details, even if they are not quite regular behaviour. But the fact is that jurors are sometimes influenced by such irrelevant factors, regrettable though that might be. I guess, as long as humans (whether juries or judges) judge one another (who else is there to do it?), such factors will always come into play, whether or not we think ideally they shouldn't.
      If the judge meant by his comments simply that Jackson could leave a bad impression on a jury, then the inference I thought I read into the comment earlier evaporates, and, instead, I can only say I agree with the judge: failing to follow the rules could leave a bad impression on a jury that could even influence their deliberations, and it would be very wise of Michael Jackson to go through the motions of conforming to court procedure, and to leave as good an impression on the jury as possible.

      Just one other thing that occurs to me: with all the publicity surrounding the Michael Jackson case, it seems to have been utterly forgotten that Phil Spector is also facing court this month, charged with the murder of actress Lana Clarkson at his home in February, 2003.
      Perhaps he himself is largely forgotten now: he was an important record producer in the 1960s, and almost single-handedly shaped the 1960s pop sound with his recording technique known as the "wall of sound", in which multi-layered tracks are built up by overdubbing, to create a complex orchestrated effect to pop songs. (Allegedly this technique inspired the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, who wished to emulate this sound, which seems to show in songs such as "California Girls" and "Good Vibrations".) The technique later went a little out of vogue, and Spector, always hermitic and introverted, went into near-retirement, and we don't hear so much of him now.
      It seems the public is capable of focusing on only one really big media story at a time, and this may account for the Jackson case completely overshadowing the Spector case. I cannot comment on the details of the Jackson case, and possibly none of us can yet. But, from the facts I've seen about the Spector case, I have to say it doesn't look at all good for Spector, who could face life in jail if convicted.

2004 January
Wednesday, 21

Not having the correct papers is now a serious crime.

      Media and music personality Ian "Molly" Meldrum was recently handcuffed and detained for 11 hours upon arriving in the U.S. What terrible offence had he committed to get treated like this? Were dubious drugs found in his luggage? Or pornographic pictures?
      No - nothing like this; he simply didn't have the correct visa for visiting the U.S. This is apparently the routine way people who arrive without the right papers are treated upon arriving in the U.S. Australia's Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, intervened on Meldrum's behalf, essentially telling the U.S. authorities that Meldrum was okay; but even this wasn't sufficient to help, and the authorities said they had to stick to procedure nonetheless.
      At least they were kind enough to allow him to salvage a bit of dignity and cover the handcuffs with a t-shirt as he was led away. He was then put back on a plane to Australia and sent home. He couldn't get the necessary papers in the U.S., but had to come back to Australia and get them, then travel back to the U.S. again.
      There doesn't appear to be any suggestion that Meldrum intentionally violated U.S. immigration laws, yet he was still basically treated like a common criminal - simply for not having the right papers on him.
      In the climate of paranoia, even terror (how I would like to ban politicians from using the word "terror"!), that has grown since the attacks on the U.S. on 11 September, 2001, which politicians in various Western countries have fed to serve their own agendas, we are seeing basic human rights and dignities stripped away, and serious crimes being made out of more and more minor matters that hitherto would have been either a minor misdemeanour, or even just a procedural error - a failure to fully comply with administrative regulations. This is hand in hand with intelligence agencies such as ASIO being given frightening and unprecedented new powers of detention without charge or legal representation, and expanded powers of interrogation - including for non- suspects: that is, people they do not regard as suspects, but who they believe may have information about offenders.
      What is alarming is that many people seem to accept this, and do not loudly protest against things that would have been completely unthinkable a mere two or three decades ago. This was underlined, in this incident, by the fact that Meldrum himself defended the way he was treated by the U.S. authorities, stating that it was necessary for the sake of security. He joked that, within a few days, he would be going back to the U.S. on the same flight, and would very likely encounter the same officials once more.
      This comes at a time when airline security is being stepped up to the degree that airline passengers must almost feel like they are cattle being herded into cattle trucks under tight procedures, and even at times treated like criminals.
      But then, we have to be prepared to sacrifice human rights in order to protect human rights from terrorists - don't we?

Are State schools too politically correct?

      Australian conservative Prime Minister John Howard and his Education Minister Peter McGauran have attacked State schools as being too politically correct: they claim that State schools are lacking "traditional values" (whatever that means), and that they are apathetic to our Australian heritage and values. They cited a couple of examples that demonstrated this: one school had abandoned Anzac Day celebrations, and another had banned the annual nativity play because they apparently believed it was offensive to students of non-Christian religious background. The Ministers claimed that more and more people were choosing to send their children to private schools because of this lack of values.
      Teacher associations have responded with rare anger, saying that the Ministers have no evidence whatever for their claims. They said that the values they taught were egalitarianism and a fair go for everyone, and if those were values that the Prime Minister did not share, then he ought not to live in Australia. In contrast, they said that the values the Prime Minister supported were elitism and exclusion. (Interestingly, politicians of the conservative stripe often use "elite" when they want to put down people they regard as intellectuals or leftists. Well, never mind, Mr. Howard: you may possibly regard yourself as part of an elite: but I don't think anyone has ever accused you of being an intellectual.)
      It's difficult to know what the Prime Minister and Education Minister meant by these comments. They appear to be lumping together a whole range of things that happen in State schools from time to time. The lack of "traditional values" could possibly simply mean that State schools offer a secular education, unbiased by a particular religious agenda. (In my opinion, this is as it should be.)
      As for banning nativity plays: leaders and members of other religions have repeatedly said they are not offended by schools having nativity plays. In cases where these are cancelled, it would appear to be a case of overly politically correct educators assuming these would be offensive to non-Christians.
      This is a bit like the ridiculous case some months ago, where a municipal council decided to ban caterers from selling ham and pork at events organized by the council, in an effort not to offend Muslims, who formed a rather large proportion of the residents in that municipality.
      Muslim leaders themselves quickly disassociated themselves from this, and said it had nothing to do with them, and they were not offended at such meat being available for non-Muslims to eat. Once again, it's a case of ridiculously politically-correct officials or bureaucrats taking such heavy-handed action. The decision was so heavily derided by the public and in the media that it was rescinded some days later.
      But you have to wonder at the intelligence that can lead to such decisions being made in the first place. And I can only laugh when the people who make such decisions retract them, and try to gain points out of it by saying how it shows how responsive they are to public opinion, and how flexible they are in being willing to change.
      Anzac Day: I have to be careful in commenting about this. I don't understand the Anzac ethos well enough to have any real opinion of whether it might be appropriate in some schools to cancel these ceremonies. But I am a little disturbed at the efforts by some politicians to transform Anzac Day into representing the very spirit and culture of this country: Anzac Day has almost become a pseudo-religion in this country in recent years. I can appreciate that it is intended to commemorate those who died during war; but I don't especially like making such a militaristic function the basis of our whole national identity - which I think certain parties, including politicians, are vigorously trying to do. (A friend of mine will be getting married on Anzac Day this year, as it happens; and I was rather amused to learn that a friend of hers was horrified, and said to her: "You can't get married on Anzac Day; that's a sacred day, and it's disrespectful to get married on that day." I'm glad to say my friend is nonetheless going ahead with her plans.)
      Back to the schools: I think Prime Minister John Howard is still living in the 1950s in many ways, and still worshipping the shade of Liberal Party icon Sir Robert Menzies, and I think he is reacting against changes that are taking place in the way schools educate children, simply because it wasn't the way in the 1950s that he grew up with, and therefore he can't accept it.
      Also, some schools may be teaching children of the atrocities that were done to Aboriginal people early in the colonial history of this country, and promoting a spirit of reconciliation with the Aborigines, who feel mightily wronged by their treatment by whites over the last century or more. And I think John Howard, who steadfastly refuses to apologize to the Aboriginal community on behalf of the Australian government and people for past atrocities, regards some of this talk as a "black arm-band" view of Australian history. I won't go now into the issue of whether a government should (or even meaningfully can) apologize for a whole population; nor will I explore now what an apology implies, nor whether one can apologize for things other people did - that's another whole story. But it looks to me as if John Howard only wants to celebrate what he sees as the great accomplishments of Australians (which probably means white Australians - preferably Anglo-Saxon and Protestant), and doesn't want to think about the dark side of our history.
      On a more practical level, I think it is possible John Howard and his Ministers have also set this debate up to justify his government's policy of funding expensive and exclusive private schools more, at the expense of State schools, some of which are suffering badly from lack of funding. Of course the parents of students at private schools are likely to be voters for John Howard's government, and many of those students might also be when they are old enough to vote in elections - whereas the families whose children go to State schools are more likely to vote for other parties such as the Labor Party, Democrats, or Greens.
      I sympathize with some of the intentions of political correctness, which are often just trying to promote more sensitivity towards minority groups; but I don't like the way their efforts mangle the English language (and I enjoy telling jokes that poke fun at this sort of language), and I do think some policies adopted to this end are heavy-handed and ill-judged. To that extent, there may be some basis for John Howard's comments; but I think he had a much wider agenda in mind when he made those provocative remarks about teachers and State schools. It also makes me wonder what other troublesome issues he is trying to distract public attention from.

2004 January
Thursday, 22

Loss of sperm donor anonymity the foot in the door?

      British sperm donors are to lose their anonymity, after new laws come into effect in April which will allow children born from donated sperm to trace their ancestry. It is feared that this may deter donors from donating. Donors fear the loss of their privacy, and the possibility that years later a child will show up on their doorstep wanting to know who they are, while the British government believes that children born from donated sperm should have the same rights as adopted children, and that this information can be essential if the child later develops a genetically-inherited disease.
      It seems difficult to balance these rights, since both sides seem to have merit to them. I have not donated sperm, and am not interested in doing so; but, if I were contemplating it, loss of anonymity would almost certainly cause me to change my mind.
      I would not want to get emotionally involved in the life of a child born from my sperm. However, there is something I would fear even more: and that is that a paternity suit might be slapped on me later by the child's mother - something that she might be tempted to do if she separated from her husband or became hard up financially.
      The British government has said that sperm donors will not be legally or financially responsible for the child's upbringing - and presumably this has been written into the law.
      But can such measures be trusted? I'm probably at my most paranoid here; however, if I were to help create a child, I would not want to take even the slightest chance of suddenly getting entangled with the child's life against my will - after donating on the understanding that my involvement would end at that point. However, all it would take for the government's promise that donors will not be responsible to be broken would be for a later government to change the law, and allow donors to become financially responsible for the child's upbringing if the child or mother pursues it in legal action.
      Is anyone going to claim that governments never change laws once they are in place? It would seem quite possible that this could happen as part of a "let's make fathers pay their way" campaign, especially if a feeling developed in the community that sperm donation should not be regarded as a commodity, but that those who donate must realize they are fathering a human being, and they should be prepared to take responsibility (emotionally, financially, or both) for that life they have helped create.
      The government is going to run an awareness campaign, in order to encourage men not to be deterred from donating. But the government is, in effect, asking men to trust them not to change the laws one day. Children will not have access to the identifying information until they turn 18 - which might circumvent most potential for obligations in upbringing. The bulk of child-raising and financial commitment is over by then; but responsibility for children can continue past this age sometimes - and that age limit could also be changed by law if it suited a later government to do so.
      Perhaps it's unlikely to happen soon, or even at all. But it is possible: can anyone give an ironclad guarantee that laws would never change in this way? Never ever? (Australians will know what I mean by that!) If I donated sperm, I would feel that possible entanglement - emotional, and even financial - was a sword hanging over my head, and that that thread might one day break.

February Tuesday, 3

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 trial.
      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?

2004 February
Thursday, 5

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 death-related matters.

      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 this:

Accident outcomes WITHOUT seat-belts
      Death:       50%
      Severe disability:       30%
      Unimpaired survival:       20%

And suppose the results were like this when people did use seat-belts:

Accident outcomes WITH seat-belts
      Death:       20%
      Severe disability:       50%
      Unimpaired survival:       30%

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.
      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 of choice.

      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 death.

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.

Secular state?

      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 usually.
      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 Stone-Age nonsense.
      For those who are interested in looking further at such ideas, I recommend the following books:

Jerry Pournelle: A Step Farther Out 1980
        (in Volumes 1 and 2, at least in the paperback edition I have)
Stephen Baxter: Deep Future 2001

      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.

2004 February
Sunday, 15

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 hitherto believed.
      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 self-contradictory statement.
      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 himself!
      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 customers.
      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.)

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