30 May, 2007

Buy The Farm And Keep The View

I live in a city of about two million people that is growing at the rate of 1,500 people per week. Our here in the outer suburbs, the growth rate is faster than the average and this can be seen in the very large housing estates that are being built all around this area and the way that arterial roads between here and the CBD, which used to be clear ten years ago, are now slow-moving traffic jams at almost all times of the day. Of course, people like me live out here to be away from the high-density housing, the noise of traffic, and the misery of too many neighbours. Also for the views across open farmland which I now enjoy.

Unfortunately, the farmer opposite has sold part of his farm to a developer and there is a new housing estate being built a little way up the river from me. It won't spoil the views much but it is bound to increase the noise levels and wreck the peace of the place. I don't mind it too much (although we'll probably sell up and move on sooner or later) and you've got to put 1,500 people a week somewhere. You can't blame the farer either. The piece of land he's sold (maybe a third of his farm) will probably end up with 400 houses on it and, at local land prices, I reckon he must have got $4 million for it. It's just too tempting for a struggling farmer to resist. But it did start me wondering if there might not be a better way.

I would guess that there could be 20 houses whose views will be spoilt by this new estate and probably all of them will suffer a significant drop in the values of their own homes. (They'll also have to suffer at least 400 more cars on the road to the city each morning.) So what if they had bought the land from the farmer instead?

They would each have needed to raise a mortgage of $200,000 to equal the developer's offer and that might seem a bit too steep for some (although I'd say the folk around here are good for it – and, God knows, land in Brisbane is a very good investment, as you can imagine.) But what if they only had to raise, say, a quarter of that, or a tenth even, to keep the farmer happy? An infusion of about half a million into the farmer's bank account might be all he really needed – especially if he still retains a controlling interest in the land and the right to continue to farm it – while costing the 20 home-owners just $25,000 each. In fact, through a series of deals like this over the next couple of decades, the people surrounding the farm could end up owning it, the farmer could still end up farming it, and the views would be preserved. Or, if the farmer decides to take the money and run, they'd end up owning a farm they could let to tenants, or leave to go wild, or convert into a local, private leisure amenity.

Why has no-one put together the legal and financial packaging for this kind of deal? Are there any lawyers or bankers out there who want to start a business in setting up neighbourhood open land preservation deals? It could be a winner.

29 May, 2007

Coming of Age In Modern Australia

There are many milestones in a parent's life. Your daughter's first step, her first tooth, her first word, the day she starts school, the day she brings home some scrawny, extraverted clown and introduces him as her new boyfriend, the day she leaves school, leaves home, starts going out with with some scrawny, introverted weasel ...

I digress.

It was Daughter's twenty-first birthday a couple of day ago. My little princess is all grown up at last (etc., etc.). I know it's just an arbitrary number and all that but it does seem to mark a major transition – in my life as well as hers. Is it a coincidence that I retired in the same year that she made it to adulthood? Well, yes, but it's sort of weird at the same time, don't you think?

And 21 is not such an arbitrary number as all that, actually. Did you know that recent research has shown that the human brain continues to mature right up until about 21? Did you know that the parts of the brain which mature last are those involving empathy and foresight, emotional control and physical coordination? Doesn't that just make so much sense? Well, it would if you had teenage children! Anyway, it's good to know that Daughter is at last fully human, with a properly-developed brain.

One sure sign of her new maturity, one last milestone in her long maturation, occurred just a couple of days before her 21st birthday. She started her own blog.

So, welcome to the world of emotional and physical stability, Seed of My Loins! You are now, as Shakespeare once said;

... a soldier.
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth.

Hmm. Well. What did he know?

Happy birthday, my Angel.

28 May, 2007

Religious Bigot Bans Gay Pride March In Moscow

If you read my previous blog posting and thought I was perhaps overreacting to the dangers of allowing people who are not quite sane – because they believe in magical beings - to run the world, then you might like to consider yesterday's Gay Pride march in Moscow. The march was banned by the city authorities but marchers went ahead anyway, trying to deliver a letter to the city's mayor, Yuriy Luzhkov. They didn't make it.

The march was attacked by right wing-protesters and the marchers were beaten and abused while the police looked on. Eventually, about 70 of the marchers were arrested when the police finally intervened. (Some put the number arrested as high as 100.) Later still, the police also arrested some of the right-wing attackers.

I mention this not because I think gays should have fair treatment in Russia (although I think that everyone should have fair treatment everywhere) but because of the reason the mayor of Moscow is reported to have given for his opposition to the march. He is on record as saying that Gay Pride marches are “the work of Satan”.

So here is a man who believes in magical beings, he feels that these magical beings are influencing the world in which we live, he clearly gets his information from a five-thousand-year-old document produced by someone else who was crazy enough to believe in magical beings, and he probably talks to these invisible beings at least once a week. Yet he is in charge of a whole city! On the orders of this delusional man, gay rights marchers are locked up and refused a voice. And I'm pretty sure he's not receiving any medical treatment for his mental problems.

Homosexuality, whatever you think about it, is at least real. It exists. It is manifested in many, many species, including our own. It is a fact of life. It doesn't hurt anyone or deprive them of their civil liberties. The magical beings that Yuriy Luzhkov believes in are not real. They exist only in stories and in his mind. Yet they get peaceful protesters beaten up and they deny them their right to speak.

Now tell me religion isn't a bad thing.

27 May, 2007

Kentucky Hosts Child-Indoctrination Centre

One of the most disturbing things I know is religion. Sick people, who have completely lost touch with reality and who believe that magic beings made the world, control the world and monitor, reward and punish the behaviours of individuals, are struggling constantly to impose these delusions on everybody. The worst of it all is that these deranged people are able to tell children about their fantasies, even compel them to listen, and threaten them with punishments if they don't believe in the insanity they are being fed.

Quite often the rights of these crazy people are protected by the law – mainly because the people who make the law also believe in magic beings and can see nothing wrong with what they are doing. Religious beliefs dissociate people from reality. People who believe in these magic beings are confused about what is real and what is not. They do not understand how to tell good things from bad things. They cannot easily think for themselves. They believe they must follow rules, written in ancient books, either by people inspired by the magic beings or by the magic beings themselves. That the rules they follow were actually made up by other crazy people, thousands of years ago, is not apparent to them. They are so confused about reality they think that magic beings really did make up the rules.

Honestly, it is scary that so many people can be so insane. It is frightening that we live in a world where people who talk to magic beings alone in their rooms make also make the laws, sit in judgement, and teach our children. If we could just stop them teaching children for a couple of generations, all of this madness would die out. Just think how wonderful that would be.
Why do I mention this? Because I just read about the Creation Museum, which is about to open in a place called Petersburg, Kentucky. This is a 'museum' based on the insane notion that a magic being created the whole universe a few thousand years ago. Its exhibits include, I hear, a diorama where stone age people and dinosaurs are alive at the same time. It is dedicated to a fantasy in which fossils are the result of Noah's flood, dinosaurs roamed the Garden of Eden, and the Grand Canyon was carved in a couple of days. This is the kind of idiocy you are led to once you throw away reason and start believing in magic. It would be easy to laugh at this kind of nonsense, to ridicule these nutcases and their pathetic opinions if it wasn't all so horribly dangerous. This museum of madness, this Creationist Disneyland, is designed to attract children and young people. Kids get special rates. Under-fives are allowed in for free!

What is it going to do to impressionable young minds to see all these distorted and confused exhibits? How much is it going to damage their developing understanding of the world and how it really works? There is absolutely no difference between crazy people presenting religious ideas to children and Holocaust deniers doing the same. Both believe in a twisted fantasy that has nothing to do with reality - but lots to do with their own emotional and psychological problems. Both are distorting the understanding of young minds. Why has no-one stepped in to prevent this abuse of children by these deranged lunatics? We have laws that prevent advertisers misleading people about their products. Why don't these laws stop people passing off a mad fantasy about the world as a genuine museum?

24 May, 2007

Shock Revelation! Successful Authors Starving In Garrets!

Sometimes I feel horribly cynical. Sometimes I feel my contribution can be a little too negative. That's why I don't take part in online forums anymore, it's why I try to avoid talking to people, and it's why I try to refrain from commenting on people's blogs. I just know that what I say will tend to be a downer and, however much I tell myself I'm just being realistic and it's better that I tell people the truth rather than some sugary fantasy, that I give them the benefit of my experience rather than silly, rah-rah encouragement, it pains me to have to be such a wet blanket.

For example, in this world, the people who want to be writers are legion, most of them peachy-keen and trying their hardest. Yet it is so hard to become a successful author that I can hardly bring myself to talk to wannabe writers anymore. It is well known that having a book published is about as likely as winning the lottery. Even the people with enough talent to merit publication (and, let's face it, the bar isn't very high!) so far outnumber the actual opportunities, that they might as well not bother. The manuscript they have slaved over for years is one among tens of thousands and the chances of it getting the attention of an agent, let alone a publisher, let alone a publisher who likes it and is willing to champion it within their company and push it through to print, are minuscule.

What is not so well known is that, even if you beat the odds and get published, the chances of making any money at it are even smaller. I know plenty of authors, some with several books in print, whose earnings amount to a few hundred dollars a year. Almost nothing. The way books are marketed these days, the book shops will give a new book shelf space for about three weeks and then remove it if it isn't selling well. After that, it is almost impossible to get a book into the mainstream book shops unless the publisher is willing to stump up for another round of promotion similar to the book's launch. The turnover of new books in the book shops is therefore very high and the vast majority of them, after their initial exposure, vanish without trace. Other channels – like private sales on the Web – are almost worthless. Without constant marketing, a book just sinks below everyone's awareness.

I mention all this not just because I am a bitter, unpublished author, but because I've been reading Timothy Carter's blog lately and feeling very sorry for him. This young fella has done the impossible and made it into print with his book Attack of the Intergalactic Soul Hunters. He posted recently about how his sales were going – and they're going pretty well. In six months he has sold over a thousand copies. These are sales figures that would make most published authors quite envious. However, his royalties so far amount to just a couple of hundred dollars. Not exactly a living wage. But Carter is undaunted. He has another book due for publication soon and he expects his sales to increase as each new book he writes is added to the corpus on offer.

On the face of it, this seems like a reasonable viewpoint, so I tried to work out how long it would take young Carter to build up a decent income this way. Here's the calculation I did. Let's say Carter can write and have published one new book every year for the next ten years. Let's also say that with each new book, he increases his readership by 50% (so his second book will have 1500 sales in the first six months, the third will have 2,250 and so on.) But let us also expect that, for each book, sales will fall in each six month period by 50% (so, if he sells 100 in the first six months, he will sell just 500 in the second, 250 in the third and so on.) On these assumptions (and leaving inflation aside), Carter's annual income in year ten will be a little under $14,000. (That is about half of what someone on minimum wage could earn in a year.) And by then, we'd probably all agree that Timothy Carter was a very successful author.

(This isn't quite fair because it would be expected that sales of future books would feed back to boost sales of past books to some extent but, on the other hand, I've generously included a fifty percent growth in Carter's popularity with every new book sold. Then again I've assumed a rapid drop-off in sales based on marketing through book shops. Amazon may make the tail-off less dramatic than that.)

The point of all this is, of course, not to frighten poor Mr. Carter – after all, I haven't read Attack of the Intergalactic Soul Hunters, and he's already done hugely better than statistics would predict, and he may be the next J K Rowling for all I know – but to suggest to writers in general that their dreams of fame and fortune are not exactly realistic. This is a business where the publishers and the book shops are the only real winners.

There. See? Wet blanket.

23 May, 2007

All That's Left For Men Is Meaningless Gibber

I saw a film today called 'The Ice Harvest'. Despite an all-star cast, it wasn't great. It has been described as a 'neo-noir' comedy but to say it was 'black' would have been an understatement – 'bleak' maybe! (Is bleak the new black?) Anyway one of the characters at one point says (something like); 'In this country today, all that's left for men is money and pussy.' (The dialogue in films is so hard-bitten these days, don't you think? Maybe it's because Americans admire people who talk tough – or maybe it's just that all American writers are trying to be Ernest Hemingway.) The line was so incongruous in the mouth of the character who spoke it that it really stood out and I started thinking about what on Earth the writers (Richard Russo and Robert Benton) could have meant by it.

Obviously there is the idea here that men are somehow degraded or diminished by our society. This seems like a reasonable statement. I have known a lot of men who feel that society has taken important things away from them, that they cannot be 'real' men, that their dignity has been stripped from them. Some say these things with sad resignation, some with anger. Some feel that society owes them something in return for what it has taken. I have little sympathy with them. They have a dog-like view of the world. They want to push and shove and snarl to find their proper place in the pack. They are frustrated that pushing and shoving and snarling are almost worthless skills when it comes to being top dog. Men with no fangs and narrow shoulders can get the power and the mates by exercising other abilities the complainers don't necessarily possess or value. It just isn't fair.

But this takes us nowhere. In any human society, no matter how it is structured, all that is there for men is 'money and pussy' ('power and mates' – translating from American-filmese). What else is there? (Well, things like knowledge, culture, art, love, and so on but these are all too girly for the great majority of men to care about at all.) To say that power and mates are all there is for men today is just an empty statement. It's all there ever was! It's all there ever will be! It is the very nature of the universe in which we live. Men struggle to acquire power. Power gives access to mates. So what was the guy in the film complaining about?

I dunno.

After pondering this stupid line for an hour or so, I've come to the conclusion it is just one more empty statement. Like so much that is said that sounds profound and meaningful, it is neither.

And I should have known better than to expect to learn anything – or even to hear anything interesting – from a film. It is just not a medium that lends itself to intelligent content. God knows, it's hard enough to find even a book that has anything sensible to say. So I hereby renew my long-standing resolution to look for and to expect nothing at all from films (and novels) except mindless entertainment.

20 May, 2007

What Fools These Mortals Be

Just how stupid are we? Apart from the obvious symptoms of idiocy – like voting for conservative governments, buying junk food, wrecking the climate, watching American TV and living in cities – there are other less obvious signs. One of these is the way we encourage online criminals to pester and exploit us.

For example, people who open emails from spammers, thus potentially verifying their email address to the spammer and making it a much more valuable and saleable commodity. Worse still are people who actually buy stuff from spammers. It's really simple, guys, if you don't buy stuff, they don't get any money and there's no reason for them to do it anymore. In fact, because there is this direct relationship between feeding the beast and the size of it, you can tell who is buying what. Basically, it is a load of sexually inadequate old farts too embarrassed to see a doctor for their Viagra prescriptions, and greedy but very stupid pinheads who think that buying a stock recommended online will get them rich, who are keeping this torrent of rubbish pouring down on us.

Then there is phishing. This is where someone with limited English and a deep grasp of human stupidity sends out a million emails asking for help moving a very large sum of money out of Nigeria (or some similarly obvious scam) and then touches up the morons who respond to it for funds for fictitious travel expenses, lawyers, bribes, and so on. Sometimes they just ask for bank and credit card details so they can do a spot of identity theft. This is a global criminal activity worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Who are all these greed-crazed halfwits who are so willing to believe any unknown stranger who spams them out of the blue? If you are one of them, send me half a million dollars immediately. Don't bother asking for my bank details though, I'll only accept cheques made out to 'cash'.

Finally, and this is my personal favourite, there are the people who deliberately visit a site called http://www.drive-by-download.info in order to have their PCs infected with a virus. Yes, I know it sounds absolutely insane but there are (at the last count) 409 people who have done this. A 'drive-by download' is a nasty little trick where a website has been set up (or hijacked) so that when people visit it – usually in response to a spam email (idiots!) - a virus is automatically loaded onto their computer. In the case of drive-by-downloads.info the perpetrator put adverts on the web, using Google Ads that went like this:

Drive-By Download
Is your PC virus-free?
Get it infected here!

Luckily for the 409 dimwits who have visited the site, it is a harmless one run by an IT consultant doing some kind of research (on how small an IQ can be while still leaving its owner capable of pressing a mouse button, I suppose).

Students of human idiocy who like a good laugh – or those simply wanting to depress themselves utterly – should take a look at the annual Darwin Awards. These awards 'salute the improvement of the human genome by honouring those who accidentally remove themselves from it...' There should be an award for 'the most money lost in an internet scam' but the Darwins only honour people who have paid the ultimate price for their stupidity.

19 May, 2007

Politics: The Art of Defining Things Advantageously

Perhaps someone in the Australian government would like to read the Ars Technica article on what is going on in the USA. There is pressure there from some politicians to persuade the FCC to change its definition of 'broadband' – from 'anything above 200 Kbps' to 'anything above 2 Mbps'. They also want the way broadband availability is measured so that the current practice of just one person in a particular postal district having broadband allowing the government to say that the whole district has it, can be stopped.

If the Australian government were to adopt these rules, access to broadband here would be revealed for the shambles it really is – since almost nobody here gets a service of or better than 2 Mbps and many suburbs that supposedly have access, really only have partial access. The fact that most new connections at the moment are by wireless (as in the USA) means that broadband access would be shown not to be increasing at all because wireless speeds are so slow, no wireless customer would have broadband under the new definition.

Telstra – Australia's ex-state-monopoly telecoms provider – should also read the article. Currently, the company is lobbying the government to let it expand its broadband infrastructure on a tariff basis that would effectively exclude competition and maintain its extremely high customer charges. I don't have much time for the present government of Australia but when it comes to judging which is more likely to have consumer interests at heart – Telstra or the ACCC (the government regulator) – I tend to put my faith in the regulator.

Both Telstra and the government should also note the passage in the Ars Technica piece which mentions in passing that in Japan, 'most residents can pay $30 a month for 50 Mbps fiber connections to the Internet.'

We're not quite third-world, I suppose, but definitely second rate.

17 May, 2007

Alienation - Check Your Level

As a young man, I dropped out of school and went to work on the trawlers. I didn't like it, so I took jobs in factories and warehouses and such. But no menial labouring job appealed to me. After two-and-a-half years of it, I took a couple of A-level courses at night and went to university. I mention this because these A-levels were, at that time and place, required for university entrance and, since I needed two at an absolute minimum, I went for the two easiest I could find: English and Sociology.

It was on my sociology course that I first came across Marx's concept of alienation – a feeling of separation or exclusion from society, mainly brought about by the selling of our labour for wages and the resulting loss of control of the products of our labour. It immediately struck me as a crucial insight into our society – not just because I was doing a series of crappy jobs at the time but because I had been raised in working class Hull in the north of England and had seen alienation going on all around me all my life.

Marx's ideas about alienation arose as a counterpoint to Hegel's similar notions of the relationship between people and the culture we create. Trust me when I say you don't want to get into the labyrinthine thinking of Marx, Engels, Hegel and Feuerbach as they grappled with dialectics and materialism. Deciphering it is like trying to decide how many Nineteenth Century philosophers can dance on the head of a pin. Yet the notion that the organisation of our own society estranges us from it and, in a sense, from our selves, is extremely compelling. All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind, as Aristotle so rightly said, but, worse than that, they create a schism between who we are and what we do that damages our psyches in terrible ways.

I don't know if any Marxist psychologist anywhere has ever developed an 'alienation quotient' but, if not, somebody should. The quotient would be something like the intelligence quotient (that's IQ to you) with the averagely alienated person having an AQ of 100 and most of us lying within a couple of standard deviations of that score. An AQ test would have questions like, 'How bored do you feel at work?' 'Do you take refuge in your hobbies?' 'Do you live for your vacations?' 'How heavily do you use recreational drugs?' and so on – all of which I expect correlate strongly with feelings of alienation. A low AQ score would suggest low alienation (typical of self-employed, middle-class, young men, probably) while high AQ scores would suggest high alienation (typical of employed people in low-paid, high-stress, low-status jobs – and women generally). The more low-AQ people in a society, the more stable it will be. The more high-AQ people, the more prone to civil unrest.

I would also guess that, as global capitalism really gets going, the whole world will be pushed to higher and higher AQ scores until eventually revolutions start to break out all over the place.

15 May, 2007

First Map Ever From Another Solar System

Will 2007 be a year that everyone remembers? Will my great-great-grandchildren turn to me and say, 'Gosh, Great-Great-Granddad, were you alive when that happened? Were there street parties and did the World President declare a public holiday?' (The cute little mites can't imagine a time before the World Government and the Abolition of Poverty Act.)

'Well, actually, no, kids,' I'll tell them. 'It just happened, very quietly, and nobody seemed to notice. Check it out.' And I'll pass them the space-time co-ordinates for the event so they can check the media for that momentous day – 9th May 2007 – when the very first map of an extrasolar planet was published.

Based on a 33 hour exposure on 28th and 29th October 2006, using the Spitzer space telescope, the map, pictured below, shows the surface temperature of planet HD 189733b (I remember the day when we used to call planets things like 'Mars' and 'Venus' - how silly we were back then.) HD 189733b is what planet-hunters call a 'hot Jupiter'. That is, it is a very large planet, a little larger than Jupiter itself (1.15 times the mass, 1.26 times the diameter) but, unlike our own, icy neighbour, HD 189733b is orbiting extremely close to its star (just a third of one percent of Earth's orbit) and tears around its sun at a rate of one orbit every 2.2. days! Being so close to a star, makes HD 189733b hot. The surface temperature, as revealed by the new map, varies between 650 and 930 degrees Celsius.

See the big white blob to the right of centre on the map? That's the highest temperature region. One of the side effects of orbiting so close to its star is that a planet's orbit becomes 'tidally locked' so that the same face always points towards the sun (just as the same face of our Moon always points towards the Earth). This means the sunward-facing side of the planet gets a lot hotter than the outward-facing side and hence the bright patch near the middle. Yet two things are odd about HD 189733b's temperature. The first is that we might expect a much bigger difference between the sunward and the outward side, yet the sunward side is just 50% hotter than the outward. The other is that we would expect the hottest area to be exactly in the middle of the map (which is arranged so that the middle is the point where the star is directly overhead) not shifted 30 degrees to the right. An explanation that fits both these facts is that the planet's atmosphere is whirling around the planet at tremendous speeds – 6,000 km per hour winds – carrying heat from the sunward side to the outward side and at the same time pushing the hottest spot in the direction in which it is blowing.

It's not much of a map, I know. All we get to see is how hot the air is – no beautiful swirling colours (as on our own Jupiter), no surface features, nothing much at all. Yet HD 189733b is 63 light years away. That's about sixty thousand billion kilometres away (in case you don't have your calculator handy). Given that the fastest spaceship ever built by us went at 253,000 km/hour (although we can certainly do better than that) to get to HD 189733b would be a journey lasting hundreds of billions of years using current technology.

Yet we have a map of the place.

I suppose there wasn't much of a fuss when the Babylonians drew their first maps of our own world. Probably no-one ran through the streets announcing the fact. It might not even have had a mention on the evening news for 9th May 3007 BC (or whenever it was). Nevertheless, it was an incredible achievement, just as our own map of HD 189733b is.

13 May, 2007

Stanford Prison Experiment Findings Challenged

There is a strong belief in some circles that if you put ordinary people into bad situations, they can easily be persuaded to do bad things. The most horrific evidence for this probably comes from war. Were the Nazi death camp guards all evil psychopaths? Not very likely. Scientific evidence is rather thin on the ground though.

A series of experiments by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s is very compelling. This is the one where people volunteered to take part in an experiment and were then asked by the experimenter to deliver painful electric shocks to people they didn't know (who were, in fact, stooges of the experimenter who were not really being shocked). The shocks kept increasing in severity to dangerous and harmful levels but around two-thirds of the volunteers went on administering the shocks, despite the apparent victim's screams of pain and pleas to be released. Even when the 'victim' pretended to be unconscious, the volunteers kept on administering the shocks.

A later experiment at Stanford University, by Philip Zimbardo, asked for volunteers for a psychology experiment. The experimenters split the volunteers at random into two groups, giving them the roles of prison guards and prisoners in a mock prison in the university basement. The experiment was planned to last two weeks but was stopped after six days because of the increasingly sadistic behaviour of the guards and the growing trauma of the prisoners.

The Stamford prison experiment is reminiscent of Jane Elliott's 'blue eyes/brown eyes' exercise which she used to do with school kids at about the same time, in the early 1970s, to teach them about prejudice. One day, kids in her class would be told that blue eyes were superior and brown eyes were inferior. On another day, it would be the other way around. She found that kids with the 'superior' eye colour quickly began oppressing those with the 'inferior' eye colour and that kids with the 'inferior' eye colour began to show signs of self-loathing and fear. (Kids are so cute, don't you think?)

Experiments like Milgram's and Zimbardo's are rarely performed these days as university ethics committees try to protect people from the emotional trauma of taking part in such events. Which probably explains why their findings have remained unchallenged for so long. However, an experiment published recently (summarised in the BPS Research Digest) undermines the main conclusion of these classic studies; i.e. that it is the social situation these ordinary volunteers find themselves in that leads to their terrible behaviour.

The experimenters asked for volunteers in the same way that Zimbardo did but they ran two different ads. One asked for male participants for “a psychological study of prison life”; the other invited participants for “a psychological study”. Just three words different. However, instead of doing the Zimbardo study again, they gave their volunteers a load of psychological tests. They found that the people who responded to the “psychological study of prison life” advert scored significantly higher on measures of aggression, authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, social dominance, and lower on measures of altruism and empathy than the people who volunteered for “a psychological study”.

This now leaves open the possibility that the people in Zimbardo's study were self-selected to be sadistic and cruel people – not just ordinary people in a bad situation. By extrapolation to the real world, it may tell us something about people who are involved in atrocities as well as in more minor incidents of oppression, bullying and torment. It may tell us that the people involved in committing such acts of brutality are in a position to harm others because they deliberately put themselves there.

Strangely, I don't find this very reassuring.

12 May, 2007

Kinky Boots - A Step Towards Transsexual and Transvestite Acceptance?

You may have noticed the unpronounceable Chiwetel Ejiofor in other things (Serenity, Inside man). He's one of those actors you sometimes don't recognise - they seem so different in their different parts. But you could not have missed him in Kinky Boots playing Lola, a larger-than-life drag queen. I saw this very funny film just a few days ago and was immensely impressed. If you like dry, understated British humour, you'll probably love it too. The film is all about a down at heel shoe factory (sorry) in the English Midlands that saves itself from bankruptcy by producing a line of exotic footwear especially for cross-dressers. Apparently 'inspired by' a true story it is a noteworthy film in several ways.

Firstly, it's good – funny, clever and great fun. Solid entertainment.

Secondly, it is one of a rash of recent films that deal with male cross-dressing. Transvestitism and transsexualism appear to be increasingly in vogue these days. It reminds me of my childhood in the sixties and seventies when films and the media increasingly featured gays, as part of a gradual social change from absolute rejection to (general) acceptance. Maybe something similar is going on for cross-dressers. Seems unlikely but how else do you explain all this media and film activity?

Next there is the way the film was so very sympathetic to Lola the drag-queen-tuned-shoe-designer played by Ejiofor. I haven't seen anything like it since The Crying Game (which would have been a great film except for that silly plot about a terrorist attack it was lumbered with). In Kinky Boots, Lola is a real person, we get to know her and like her. She isn't just a monstrous character or just comic relief (both of which are pretty much what they did to the character of Lady Chablis in the film of Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, despite a generally sympathetic treatment.)

Finally, it was the first film I've seen featuring cross-dressing that actually distinguished between drag queens (what we old folk used to know as 'female impersonators') and ordinary transvestites. Every film I have ever seen that had a cross-dresser in it has featured a drag queen. These are the RuPauls of the world, the mostly transsexual, gay, stage performers who are the tiny, shiny toe of an enormous submerged court shoe of ordinary non-extrovert, non-performing, and almost exclusively heterosexual men who like to dress up as women. Maybe people like that don't make good material for films, or maybe the drag queens are simply the vanguard of a very long process of changing public perception.

Anyway, rent or buy Kinky Boots this weekend. It is highly recommended.

09 May, 2007

In Case You Were Wondering...

Some of you may not know it but I write music. In fact, I've got two albums out and I'm working on a third. For the curious among you, those who can withstand any amount of embarrassment I can throw at you, I have attached a little 'jukebox' at the foot of this blog (keep scrolling all the way to the bottom and you will eventually find it.) To listen to a tune, just click on it's title. It'll take a few seconds before it starts, so don't keep clicking or you'll confuse the poor silly thing. If you haven't got broadband, don't even try it. Write an angry letter to your Telecomms Minister instead.

One of the most astonishing aspects of our digital age is that people like me, with barely any musical ability, without even a musical instrument - just a computer and some cheap software - can create wonderful music. (That's 'wonderful' in the sense that I love it and love making it - not in the sense that millions of fans are rushing to hand over their cash.) I can score a piece for elaborate and expensive ensembles that my computer will play on its software synthesisers. I can mix and re-mix it to my heart's content, save it as high-fidelity computer files and publish it myself on CD at very reasonable rates. (Of course, it helps that Daughter does the artwork for the covers - something I really do have no talent at all for.)

It's not how I ever envisaged myself being occupied after retirement but it certainly beats bingo and coach tours!

Anyway, I hope you like it. I will leave the jukebox lying around at the bottom of the blog for a while to see if anyone listens. If they do, I might start varying what tunes are available, so people don't get bored. There is a permanent link to the Gray Wave website in the right-hand column for those who like to poke around the Web (in the 'My Websites' section).

06 May, 2007

IBM - Just Maximising Its Profits

In Australia, the top rate of corporation tax is 30% but the top rate of personal tax is 48%. Corporations have a number of ways of considerably reducing this tax burden, many of which can be used fraudulently. Individuals have almost no means of reducing their tax burden. In fact, the government insultingly insists on taxes being extracted directly from people's wages by their employers before they even receive them. People can't be trusted not to cheat on their taxes, whereas corporations can, is the message, I suppose. Any way you look at this, corporations are taxed more lightly and more trustingly than individuals. It's almost as if governments prefer corporations to people.

Of course, without the corporations, there would be fewer jobs – or so the reasoning goes. The corporations invest their profits to grow bigger, making more jobs and creating wealth for the whole society. And if some of that wealth sticks to the fingers of the executives and the politicians in the process, isn't that a small price to pay for the general good it does? Well, I won't argue. It's hard to know where to begin when there is so much corruption and deceit inherent in the whole system. Suffice it to say that the end can never justify the means, and, let's face it, the end keeps on receding at a faster and faster pace as world poverty and the gap between rich and poor continue to increase.

Instead, I want to point out some recent news items about IBM. This is a company I once worked for and which I know fairly well, so I tend to notice when it is in the news. A few days ago, IBM announced that it was laying off 1,300 people in the USA. But IBM is a company of almost 256,000 people so no-one worried too much that half a percent were axed. About the same time, IBM announced that it was freezing its direct benefits pension scheme. This is quite a trend in the corporate world these days. An increasingly uncertain future has made companies nervous about building up liabilities to pay future pensions. Instead, IBM is going to make bigger contributions to state superannuation schemes and is pleased to say this will save it US$2 – US$3 billion. (Of course, the money IBM saves is actually money its employees will no longer have – so IBM employees might just as easily announce a US$2 – US$3 billion loss.)

Then I read an interesting piece speculating that these two moves are just the beginning of a very large 'lean transformation' programme that IBM is pursuing. The allegation is that the company is beefing up its Indian and Chinese operations so that it can sack up to 150,000 American workers and move their jobs to where the wages are much, much lower. Knowing the company, this is exactly the kind of bold, shareholder-focused action it might seriously be contemplating. The 'lean' method originated with Toyota and, I suppose, some overpaid air-head consultants in IBM's employ have persuaded them that this can be applied to the software business. Knowing the software business – which is extremely labour-intensive and much more of a craft than an engineering discipline – I'm pretty sure these idiots don't have a clue what they're doing. But I'm sure their PowerPoint slides look great.

But all that aside, what makes IBM's management feel that it is OK to lay off 1,300 people – let alone the 150,000 they may be preparing to shaft? The answer is that they know this is what they must do to keep profits high. If profits are high, the share price stays high, investors will continue to buy into the company, and IBM can keep on growing and making more profits. But why is this valued above people's lives and livelihoods? I have seen IBM in Australia shedding hundreds of jobs at a time just to keep its profitability up. I have known lots of people who have suffered because of this. If the rumour is even half-true, the scale of the devastation to people's lives in the US will be horrendous. It will have a knock on effect on employment and salaries throughout the software industry and beyond. And all so that people can keep making large profits? Why is their greed more highly-valued than people's lives?

Which brings me back to my point. Governments clearly like corporations to be profitable and have created a very benign climate for them to operate in so that their profits can be maximised. Yet they do this in the belief that healthy corporations invest in growth and jobs and everybody benefits. But what if a company's 'lean transformation' plan is to move half its jobs overseas? How does the government benefit then? The company grows, alright, but it isn't investing in the society that nurtured it anymore. It's investing elsewhere. And all those people it employed in the good times with the help of generous and supportive governments are now being dumped onto the streets by the tens of thousands – no longer the company's concern, no longer their shareholders' problem. Hell, they don't even have to worry about future pension obligations anymore!

So whose problem is it?

04 May, 2007

What Today's Generation Won't Get From Global Capitalism

Wifie often says that she and I have lived through a Golden Age. In case you didn't notice, she's referring to the period from about the end of World War 2 to the end of the 1970s. This was a time - in Europe at least - during which the Welfare State was built and flourished. In the UK, where we lived during the Golden Age, there was free education for everyone - including university education - and it was first class at all levels. There was free health-care for everyone - no-one need pay for GPs, medicines, dentists, hospitals, X-rays, blood tests, spectacles, or specialist consultants - all of this also first class. There was generous support for the unemployed, for pensioners and for invalids. Town councils built huge numbers of low-rent, good-quality houses and ran excellent bus services. The State owned all the infrastructure - gas, electricity, telephones, the roads, water, and the railways - and it was pretty well-run and affordable. There was even a decent legal aid system so that not only rich people had access to the law.

Sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? Well, it really did happen. Although my father was a docker and earned a miserably low wage, my family lived in a comfortable, new, three-bedroomed house. I went to decent, well-equipped schools. When I went to university, my fees were paid and I was given a grant on which to live. I did a degree and studied for a PhD at the State's expense. Without the Welfare State, I would have grown up in a slum and finished school at 16. It was an amazing act of social welfare, for which I will always be grateful. In my very large family, the generation before me were almost all casual labourers with a handful of semi-skilled labourers. In my generation, a few of us rose to 'professional' status. In the generation after me, university education is the norm and a crop of lawyers, scientists and engineers is expected. It would not have happened without the Welfare State and the way even people without money were treated as valuable human beings.

But that kind of caring society could not survive the forces of capitalism. Slowly, at first, and then with increasing speed and ferocity, the former elite reasserted itself and clawed back its privileges. A real class war was fought in the Reagan and Thatcher years, and the poor people lost. (Maggie Thatcher became Prime Minister on 4th May 1979 by the way – 28 years ago today.) Since then, the social reforms that were made in the '40s, '50s and '60s have steadily been dismantled, paving the way for today's global capitalism and laissez-faire economics. The Welfare State hasn't quite gone. Some vestiges still remain. Healthcare isn't free now but people are still protected from it's full cost. The same is true for education, although standards in the state-run sector are dropping all the time. Legal aid has almost gone, though, and not much of our infrastructure is in government hands anymore. Bus and train services have been whittled away, and power, telecoms and water supplies are unreliable and increasingly costly.

The fact that I can now afford private health care for myself and my immediate family is offset by the fact that most people cannot. The fact that I own my own home is offset by the fact that there is almost no low-cost rental property for those who need it. The fact that I have a car is offset by the fact that there is no bus or train service within 15 km of where I live. The only reason that I, a poor boy from a poor family, now have the money to look after myself and my family, is that the housing, healthcare and education I got when I needed it, were provided by the State. Without them, people like me in the current generation won't be able to raise themselves out of poverty.

Wifie's right: it was a Golden Age. And I'm surprised that more people don't want it back.

03 May, 2007

The Rich Get Richer - Not All Bad

People get very worked up about haves and have-nots. Mostly it doesn't matter. If you drive a $200,000 Merc or a clapped-out old Honda, you still go at the same slow crawl through the city traffic. Someone who uses a BIC ballpoint rather than a Montblanc 'writing instrument' still manages, somehow, to scribble down their thoughts. And a $15 jumper from Kmart keeps you just as warm as the equivalent offering from Dolce & Gabbana at twenty times the price – and often looks much better too.

So it is with mixed feelings that I note that the gap between rich and poor in the West has now widened so much that we are back to levels not seen since 1937.

On the one hand, this kind of concentration of wealth is inherently disgusting. Consider how the surpluses of the West's richest few percent could alleviate so much suffering for even our own desperate poor. The fact that BMWs and garden pools and Cartier jewellery can be seen as a kind of 'ego tax' on those rich enough and stupid enough to buy them, effectively nullifying their excessive wealth by making them pay hugely more for goods and services that are essentially similar to the ones everybody else can afford, does not negate the fact that this excess wealth, if spent on socially beneficial projects, could feed starving people and care for the sick.

Every BMW Z4 that someone buys, trying to impress beyond the capacity of their unadorned self, would pay for a medical team for a year in a third-world country. Every pool extension that some bored businessman with more money than empathy decides to have built, would feed several starving families for a year. Every million-dollar – or multi-million-dollar – folly that an overpaid manager buys to satisfy delusions of grandeur way beyond their taste, could send a handful of poor kids through university.

Yes, it's nice that they waste their money on Rolex watches instead of Timex ones and just exercising. It massages their little egos, redistributes some of their wealth, and prevents them doing anything really nasty with their money. Yet, how much nicer it would be if they spent their surplus on doing good. Or, better still, if society was arranged so that such inequities didn't arise in the first place.

The Gray Wave Jukebox

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