Tuesday, September 27, 2005


I have this holiday memory of being proud to be Australian: a Paris youth hostel, I'm standing in the foyer, a group of young men arrive (obviously a sporting team), happy and joking, and one calls to another: "Hey, Boofhead!"

Only an Australian can say "Hey, Boofhead!" properly, and that's what they were. Hearing that voice, I felt so damn proud, and I don't even know why. Maybe it was just their manner: sunniness, camaraderie, joy. They probably represented an idealised "Australianness" or something. The point is just that I stood there as an Australian and felt proud.

I don't feel that way any more, and it's not just because I've turned grumpy. Australians have changed. We're not the same people we used to be, we're not the same country. Yes, change is inevitable over a lifespan, including that of a nation. It's also probably inevitable that the present international climate is making everyone hostile and jumpy. But... but...

David Hicks, Australian, captured in Afghanistan in 2001, imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay for nearly 4 years, has applied for British citizenship. (Laws which changed during his imprisonment mean that, as the child of a British mother, he qualifies for a UK passport and dual nationality.)

It's quite obvious he'd want to be British, and not just because England can beat us at cricket. The British government secures the release of its citizens from Guantanamo. But the Australian government?

Despite the outcry over human rights abuses, Australia's right-wing government has raised no objections to Hicks's detention at Guantanamo, nor to his impending trial there next month before a military commission. Australia is the only EU or Commonwealth government not to have protested about Guantanamo.

[... In contrast, in 2004 Britain’s Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith said]: There are certain principles on which there can be no compromise. Fair trial is one of those - which is the reason we in the UK have been unable to accept that the US military tribunals proposed for those detained at Guantanamo offer sufficient guarantees of a fair trial in accordance with international standards.

[... And in case you’ve forgotten]: Hicks says he has suffered physical and psychological abuse from his captors. In an affidavit last December, he said he
had been beaten with fists and rifle butts while blindfolded, subjected to extreme cold and strobe lights, and 'had my head rammed into asphalt several times'.
- David Rose, The Observer

Whether David Hicks is guilty as charged is not for you or I to judge. He should get his day in court (a real one). And here's the saddest fact: he won't and can't get that opportunity as an Australian.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Science v. bias

News from last week which could prompt sociologists to mutter "I told you so". [But let's face it: that doesn't take much, does it? ;) Yours faithfully, An Ex-Sociology Student.]

A study by Janet Shibley Hyde of the University of Wisconsin in Madison finds that many psychological gender differences depend on the context in which they’re measured. On most psychological variables, men and women, boys and girls are alike.

In one study where participants in the experimental group were told that they were not identified as male or female nor wore any identification, neither sex conformed to a stereotyped image when given the opportunity to act aggressively. They did the opposite to what was expected.
- press release, American Psychological Association

For me the most interesting part of this study is found in something it quotes:
Another important reviewer of gender research in the early 1900s, Helen Thompson Woolley (1914), lamented the gap between the data and scientists' views on the question: The general discussions of the psychology of sex [ie. gender], whether by psychologists or by sociologists show such a wide diversity of points of view that one feels that the truest thing to be said at present is that scientific evidence plays very little part in producing convictions.
Is the conviction of this latest study justified by evidence? I've got no idea. I don't understand the statistics used, and I'm not even clear about the method (a review of meta-analyses of previous research? Just how far away are the actual experiments with actual people?) But the thing is this: for decades we've all been led to believe that men and women are psychologically different. If the findings of this latest study are correct - that males and females are similar in not all but most psychological variables - then how did the theory of difference persist for so long?

Persnicketies rule, sir!

From Winston Churchill:

I am reminded of the professor who, in his declining hours, was asked by his devoted pupils for his final counsel. He replied, "Verify your quotations."

Here’s the funny part, though: Winston said this because he was apologising for misattributing another quote. But he botched this one too.
Oxford professor Martin Joseph Routh was once asked what advice he'd give young scholars. "You will find it a very good practice always to verify your references, sir!" said Routh (who was still far from his deathbed).** Churchill might have borrowed his garbled version of Routh's advice from an 1897 speech by the Earl of Rosebery, who referred to "the advice given by one aged sage to somebody who sought his guidance in life, namely, 'Always wind up your watch and verify your quotations.'"
Online sources, though? Couldn't find 'em. Boo.

** "I ventured to address him somewhat as follows: 'Mr.President, give me leave to ask you a question I have sometimes asked of aged persons, but never of any so aged or so learned as yourself.' He looked so kindly at me that I thought I might go on. 'Every studious man, in the course of a long and thoughtful life, has had occasion to experience the special value of some axiom or precept. Would you mind giving me the benefit of such a word of advice?' He bade me explain, evidently to gain time. I quoted an instance. He nodded and looked thoughtful. Presently he brightened up and said, 'I think, sir, since you care for the advice of an old man, sir, you will find it a very good practice' (here he looked me in the face) 'always to verify your references, sir!'"
- John William Burgon, quoting Martin Joseph Routh

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Getting to the truth

Reporters Without Borders now offers a free download of The Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents. To put this into perspective:

Press Freedom Barometer 2005

Journalists killed = 50
Media assistants killed = 3
Journalists imprisoned = 112
Media assistants imprisoned = 3
Cyberdissidents imprisoned = 70

The Handbook offers tips on getting started; ethics; attracting search-engines; protecting your privacy and anonymity; and circumventing censorship in countries where blogging can be a life and death issue. Even for those of us in safer environments, it's an interesting read:

Most of the world’s authoritarian regimes are trying to control what their citizens read and do online. They’re getting better and better at blocking "objectionable" material, usually with technology bought from US firms. China is far and away the world champion. But it's felt the heat of competition in recent years. [Rivals include Vietnam, Tunisia, Iran, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan.]
- Julien Pain, "Internet-Censor World Championship," p.83 (p.43 in PDF)

Personal accounts include that of Yan Sham-Shackleton, author of Glutter. In 1989 she was in Hong Kong, supporting Chinese students' calls for democracy, when she heard the shots from Tiananmen Square over the radio:

We all know now that China will use tanks against those who seek democracy, but until then we did not. I think it was at that moment that Glutter was born in my head, when I heard the ending of the 1989 Democratic Movement on the radio, in a tunnel, with bright fluorescent lights. I was 15. [...] It is only tonight that I’m thinking that all this writing, all the photos and artwork I have done in the name of democracy, the cyber-protest I organized, the interviews I agreed to, and the stories I published in the name of free speech are not only because I fervently believe in it but also because it is a way to placate my subconscious. Blogging allows me to keep my promises to the dead.

And from the blurb following:

Yan Sham-Shackleton wants you to know she spent six weeks writing six versions of this article where she tried to record all she knows about blogging until she realized the beauty of the medium is that you can be yourself.
- Yan Sham-Shackleton, "I kept my promise to those who died," pp.47-8 (25-6 in PDF)

:) Go, bloggers. Sometimes it matters.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Nations uniting

Tomorrow is the International Day of Peace, which:
...is meant to be a day of global cease-fire. I call on all countries and all people to stop all hostilities for the entire day. I also urge all people around the world to observe a minute of silence at 12 noon. Let us hold in our hearts the ideal of peace.
- Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary-General

And did you know this is the International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World? I didn’t, and we’re already halfway through. The manifesto was drafted in 2000 by a group of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates:
I pledge [...] to:

Respect the life and dignity of each human being without discrimination or prejudice;

Practise active non-violence, rejecting violence in all its forms: physical, sexual, psychological, economical and social, in particular towards the most deprived and vulnerable such as children and adolescents;

Share my time and material resources in a spirit of generosity to put an end to exclusion, injustice and political and economic oppression;

Defend freedom of expression and cultural diversity, giving preference always to dialogue and listening without engaging in fanaticism, defamation and the rejection of others;

Promote consumer behaviour that is responsible and development practices that respect all forms of life and preserve the balance of nature on the planet;

Contribute to the development of my community, with the full participation of women and respect for democratic principles, in order to create together new forms of solidarity.

I won't be taking the pledge, of course. The idea of planting a peace pole makes me want to hit people (with the said pole).

Sunday, September 18, 2005


I’ve been wondering about trust. Trusting people means risk, and I’m not brave. On the other hand, I like the way our legal system is based on the presumption of innocence, and think this should be the basis for our everyday relations as well. Cynicism, scepticism, thinking the worst of people first... that’s not how I want the world to be, and like I said in another post, I think we make the world with the decisions of everyday. What I’m saying, reader, is that I expect you to be honest. I expect you to be who you say you are. I expect to fight my own paranoia occasionally in order to trust you, because to do otherwise is disrespectful to both of us. All of which means that if you’re not who you say you are, you can fuck off now. Clear enough?

On a larger scale, we as a country trust the people we allow to enter Australia. Yes, they’re checked, and yes, they need to meet visa requirements and so on, but essentially that involves answering questions and I'm assuming we generally take people at their word. So when American peace activist, Scott Parkin - here on a six-month visa - was deported from Australia this week, I was inclined to think he'd lied about his reasons for visiting, and that he'd betrayed our trust.

If you don’t know the story, in summary**:

- Parkin arrived in Australia on 1st June, intending to leave on 20th September.
- As well as more typical tourist activities, he stayed with political and social activists, spoke to anti-war groups and attended conferences and events opposing the Forbes Global CEO Conference in Sydney last month.
- Specifically, "He spoke openly against the war in Iraq and against what he calls the war profiteering by the likes of US company Halliburton, once run by American Vice-President, Dick Cheney."
- On Wednesday 7th September someone from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) rang him to request an interview, though they had no warrant. He declined.
- On Saturday 10th September his visitor’s visa was cancelled.
- The same day, and shortly before he was to conduct a protest workshop in Melbourne, he was detained: "His escorts — four ASIO officers and two immigration officials — took him to Carlton police station, then to the Melbourne Custody Centre [...] On Thursday, after almost a week in detention at his own expense, Parkin was flown home."

The reason for his deportation?
- "Mr Parkin's removal from Australia seemed to be based only on something he had supposedly said, although he had not been told what that was."
- 'Parkin's visa was cancelled under decade-old provisions in the Migration Act that require the Immigration Minister to act if ASIO deems someone a "direct or indirect risk" to security.'
- 'A spokesman for Attorney-General Philip Ruddock said ASIO had not opposed the original visa application, but its understanding of his intentions had changed during his trip. Parkin was detained for "encouraging spirited protest".'

If this deportation had been ordered by the Prime Minister or his mates, I'd have assumed it was a political stunt. (Yes, that would be bias you’re detecting.) But the situation reportedly was this: the Leader of the Opposition was also briefed on the situation, and did not oppose the deportation. I’m not all that fond of the Opposition either, as it happens, but I'd expect them to argue about the decision - if there was any doubt about it - just because that’s their job: to oppose. They didn’t do that. So I assumed the case against Parkin was strong.

And here’s the thing: I want to believe the government, whoever is in power. It’s my country, it’s my government, I want these people to be good and true and worth supporting. I want to believe them. And I wanted to believe there must have been something amiss in Parkin's story.


Former Australian Office of National Assessments (ONA) analyst, Andrew Wilkie, who resigned over the misrepresentation of intelligence ahead of the Iraq war, suggested the Labor Party had fallen for an old spooks trick he had seen before.

"I sat in on three ONA briefings with the then-opposition leader Simon Crean and on all three occasions, I saw relevant and important information intentionally omitted from the security briefings because they were inconsistent with the government's policies on the issue," he said. "So, I'm not satisfied that Kim Beazley has made an informed decision on this."


...under last year's National Security Information Act, is the Government no longer has to reveal to a court the basis of its decision. And even as ASIO was moving to cancel Parkin's visa, Prime Minister John Howard was issuing another tranche of anti-terror proposals, including powers to fit terror suspects with tracking devices, detain them for up to 14 days without charge and make random bag searches in public areas.


University of NSW law professor George Williams says episodes such as Parkin's removal are a sign of a growing lack of scrutiny of Government decisions.

"We are going to increasingly see important decisions made behind the cloak of secrecy, and the sort of laws we are dealing with will give added power for these things to occur without adequate scrutiny, without reasons being made known," he says.

"I can see the need for tough laws and I support tough laws, but when you have definitions that are too broad, decisions that are made without appropriate scrutiny, we are really laying the foundations for what could be long-term flaws in our system of democracy."

Long-term flaws in our system of democracy? What's going on?

Without trust, democracy dies and almost nothing can be done. This is not new. Confucius thought that a successful ruler needed three things: an army, bread to distribute and the trust of the people – and that trust was the most important. Macchiavelli wrote: "If it is fated that the people do not trust anyone, because they have been deceived, then they fall inexorably into ruin."

(Jakob von Uexkull, founder of the Right Livelihood Awards.)

Trust depends on honesty. Honesty depends on openness. Openness is not what these laws are about, and of course that's largely due to the nature of anti-terrorist measures: secrecy can be necessary. But I'd say national security means more than just protection from terrorists; I'd say it also means being able to trust the people who are running the country. What a relief, then, that we've never been deceived before.

** Links to articles in the Age or Sydney Morning Herald won't work unless you sign in, sorry.

Thursday, September 15, 2005


** Special fer ye, Granny-Splice the Mainbrace-P! Have t' look hard fer the parrot, but that's a glow-in-the-dark sword, begad!!**

Here be news, ye swashbucklers: Monday 19th September be International Talk Like a Pirate Day 2005!

Talking like a pirate is fun. It's really that simple. [...] The point is, there is no point. [...] When Sept. 19 rolls around and suddenly tens of thousands of people are saying "arrr" and "Weigh anchor or I'll give you a taste of the cap'n's daughter," it staggers us. They are talking like pirates -- not because two yahoos from the Northwestern United States told them to, but simply because it's fun.

Begad! Reason enough, me hearties! Yarrr!!

How to sound like a pirate (in 4 days or less)
Pirate Glossary
A Pirate's Vocabulary
The Pirate's Realm
Talk Like a Pirate Day Official British HQ
Pirate links

And smile, damn you!

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


through a telescope:
ten cents worth of fog.

- Kobayashi Issa

Monday, September 12, 2005

These sea slugs...

These sea slugs,
they just don't seem
- poem by Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827/8)


Friday, September 09, 2005

Between black or white

I was happy with that last post, but it ended up not saying what I meant. (Learning as I go: "It reads well" v. "It says what I mean" are two different things. Damn and drat, etc.)

I was trying to illustrate the problems of decision-making at an everyday level, having to ask "what to do?" at every turn, and facing all those shades of grey in every decision (not just in my hair...)


Never mind. I do have grey hair, and it has sometimes been a problem, and that's a topic in itself, so fair enough. But here's what I was trying to get at:

Decision-making. It’s a pain. I can never decide what to do about anything. Often it becomes a process of eliminating the least-liked alternatives until only the least-hated of the least-liked remains (and just writing that makes me confused).

Do you know what I mean? All those shades of grey to consider... nothing is ever black or white. I wish I had religion or a strong philosophical stance or a guardian angel or something to tell me what to do. At least then I’d have something else to blame, instead of myself, and some criteria by which to judge things.

Gerry’s Aesop story on the previous post (a man, a boy, a donkey) suggests we have to make up our own minds, regardless of outside influences (at least, that’s what I’m taking it to mean). But how, in this present-day world, are we to do that? What’s the basis for good decision-making now? The public good? whatever makes you happy? do unto others? don’t rock the boat? try it and see? flip a coin?

I’m not asking you for an answer, this is more just a semi-philosophical ponder.
But I’d be interested to know what you think. All the little decisions we make at an individual level end up, cumulatively, being the way we make the world. And the other way of looking at it: changes in the world rely on us making the appropriate individual decisions. It seems just a tad scary to me. Where are we headed? What's driving us? Does anybody actually know where they're going??

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

All those shades of grey

My hair is grey. I call it silver, to avoid the "old and grey" tag, but to a sensible person looking from the outside, it's grey. Why am I telling you this? Because it's more than hair colour, it's a whole Big Thing. (An "issue", just quietly. I hate that word.) Probably most people experience The Onset of Grey sometime in their lives, unless their hair goes the other way and falls out. Then you have to decide what to do. Should you colour it? Should you leave it? Should you - if you've lost it - replace it? It might not sound like a big deal, but for some of us it is.

The grey thing started when I was just a teenager, which seems (a) unfair, and (b) premature. At the time I planned to do nothing about it, which is still my first and favoured option in every situation. But then the grey got patchy, so I coloured it for the next few years. Then I got sick of the money and time and effort (and the very annoying conversations at the hairdresser's) and stopped again. Then came the year of growing out the previously-coloured-and-now-faded bits, which is not something I can recommend: you look like a fool, though I don't know the alternative, especially if you are a fool.

Now, years later, it's back to natural colour. And I actually like it most of the time. It makes me look weird, which is what I am, though natural hair colour is not as unusual around here as it might be elsewhere (I live in the land of hippies). I've seen a few stunning-looking heads carrying loads of grey hair and I'm always on the lookout for role models, but there just aren't very many - not women, anyway.

Unfortunately, the problem with grey hair is that it seems to highlight bad skin and teeth... yes, yes, guess who. So for anyone in the public eye, I understand the colour thing. It's easier for me, because I spend my days in the company of trees and cows. They just don't care. They just don't notice.

When appearance isn't a primary concern though, I think it's probably good to go natural: grey or bald, whatever the case may be. I'm proud of myself for doing so, put it that way. This is me, this is what I look like, and I want to live with it, struggle or not. And it is a struggle - sometimes I look pretty damn ugly, and the grey probably makes me look older, which I don't want to be. But at heart it's my own private (and hitherto unexpressed) way of fighting those messages that tell us we have to be different, be better, in order to be who we should be. There are lots of ways to be different and better, and they don't always involve surface treatments to your appearance.

Sometimes they do though, of course. How to decide? I think I've settled with the grey now, and I'll probably be staying that way. But the topic (silly as it might seem) just illustrates the ongoing dilemma of living, the uncertainty that kills me every time, having to ask this persistent question about every damn thing:

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

To plod, perchance to renovate

It's time for a blog makeover, reader. Please be brave. It might get messy.

And while I'm bashing my thumb with the hammer and tripping over loose floorboards, here's G.K. Chesterton again:

The power of wealth, and that power at its vilest, is increasing in the modern world. A very good and just people, without this temptation, might not need, perhaps, to make clear rules and systems to guard themselves against the power of our great financiers. But that is because a very just people would have shot them long ago, from mere native good feeling.

From “Some Policemen and a Moral”, Tremendous Trifles.


Thursday, September 01, 2005

To plod, perchance to stumble

Here’s what I thought would happen: I’d take a month off, stop writing posts or reading more than two blogs, I’d waltz about and forget all about blogging. This extended period of not-blogging would then usher in a renewed spirit of blogging zeal, which is the way these things always work.

Or not, as the case may be.

So life's a shit and then you die. No surprise there, right? I'm back, in other words. Haven't got anything to say yet, but here's G.K. Chesterton (from his Autobiography) talking about hobbies. I think he would have included blogging, if he'd known what it was:
A hobby is not a holiday. It is not merely a
momentary relaxation necessary to the renewal of work; and in this respect it must be sharply distinguished from much that is called sport. A good game is a good thing, but it is not the same thing as a hobby; and many go golfing or shooting grouse because this is a concentrated form of recreation; just as what our contemporaries find in whisky is a concentrated form of what our fathers found diffused in beer. If half a day is to take a man out of himself, or make a new man of him, it is better done by some sharp competitive excitement like sport. But a hobby is not half a day but half a life-time. It would be truer to accuse the hobbyist of living a double life. And hobbies, especially such hobbies as the toy theatre [created by his father, and an important part of Chesterton Junior's childhood], have a character that runs parallel to practical professional effort, and is not merely a reaction from it. It is not merely taking exercise; it is doing work. It is not merely exercising the body instead of the mind, an excellent but now largely a recognised thing. It is exercising the rest of the mind; now an almost neglected thing.