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31 December, 2008

2008 Retrospective

Some year, huh?

From the Obama election win to the all-but-collapse of the world economy (see 2009 for the grand finale) there have been some major world events none of us will forget in a hurry.

On a personal level, this has been an amzing year too. I finally ran down my consultancy business and retired - just in time for my savings to be halved by the America-led economic collapse. (Thanks, guys.) In return, however, I got a full year of living on this mountain, surrounded by beautiful forest and wildlife, with nothing but peace, sunshine, and my wonderful wife to keep me company. I measure my personal wealth in terms of how much leisure I have to pursue the things I enjoy, so 2008 has been a year of immense riches.

I also got a dog. Bertie - or Gobby, as I mostly call him - is a purebred mixed blessing. Handsome, fit and happy, great fun, clownish and playful, he's also a right royal pain in the arse. Mostly, now, he can control his bladder. Mostly, he doesn't steal and eat everything in his reach. But he still likes to jump on guests and chew their faces, and he has picked up new tricks, like jumping in the dam and then drying himself on the carpet, and chasing after cars like a bat out of Hell. Has he improved my life or not? The jury is still out, but 2008 is the year I'll remember as the one in which Bertie was a wild and crazy puppy.

And then there was the writing. If you only know me from this blog and not the other one, you might not even be aware that my new career as a writer of fiction has finally begun to take off. In May I won a place on a 'manuscript development retreat' after submitting my unpublished novel Time and Tyde in a national competition. It didn't lead to publication or anything but it gave me such a huge boost in understanding of the whole writing and publishing business that, in the seven months since then, I have had four short stories accepted for publication (only one is out so far), I was short-listed in one short-story competition, and was the winner in another. I have also written and polished a whole new novel (called TimeSplash!) which I am now looking for an agent to represent. This may not seem like much, but it represents a major breakthrough for me. In the whole of my life until May 2008, I had published only one short story, and had never won a writing competition. If I can keep up the momentum, 2008 will be the year I remember as the turning point in my writing career.

And there were lots of other things too - Wifie built her first website, Daughter passed her driving test, the Large Hadron Collider came online and went off-line again, I finally got a phone line installed (at enormous expense), I got in touch with all my long-lost neices and nephews in the UK, and so on, and so on.

All in all, quite a year.

I hope your 2008 was a full and rewarding one and that 2009 will be even better for everyone (prolonged global recession notwithstanding).

23 December, 2008

Merry Christmas Everybody

OK, last post before Christmas. My daughter turns up in an hour - she passed her driving test just a few days ago and is driving herself down from Brisbane for the first time, so we're sitting here with crossed fingers and baited breath - then the festivities begin. It's also my 19th wedding anniversary today! N-n-n-nineteen, can you believe that?

So I'm going to be busy with loved ones - much, much loved ones - for the next few days.

I hope you will all have as great a time as I'm going to have.

See you on the flip-side.

Merry Christmas.

20 December, 2008

Surprise, Surprise!

Dr Jerry Burger, of Santa Clara University, has repeated Stanley Milgram's famous 1960's experiments and found that people are still willing to inflict severe electric shocks on other people just because an 'experimenter' tells them to.

Personally, I'm satisfied that Milgram did a pretty thorough job of investigating this effect and all its various parameters. Of course, it's nice to see replication of the results by others, and this should be encouraged - especially in a field like social psychology. What puzzles me, though, is the headline on the BBC's report of Burger's study: "People 'still willing to torture'." Well, duh! What do you think is going on at Guantanamo Bay? What do you think Mugabe is doing to all the opposition politicians who disappeared recently? What do you think Amnesty keeps banging on about if it isn't the willingness of people everywhere to indulge in torture?

There seems to be a belief, at least among journalists, that human beings will 'evolve' in som spiritual or ethical way and that, over time, we will all become better people. Well I'm sorry guys but evolution doesn't work like that. If not torturing people had survival or reproductive benefits, then it might happen. Sadly, that doesn't seem to be the case.

Our only hope is that our cultures will evolve - or at least learn. Cultures are probably shaped by the same selection processes that shape species. What's more, cultures can change very quickly - unlike species. Yet here too, the elimination of torture from a society would need to have some beneficial impact on that society to make it stick. That is, a culture without torture would need to survive and even spread more easily than one with torture. As yet I see very little evidence for it.

But we can hope.

Madoff Treated Kindly By His Friends

A poor kid in New York who robs a liquor store and gets away with $50 would almost certainly be locked up pending trial. So how come self-confessed, $50 billion thief Bernard Madoff is under 'house arrest' in his $7 million New York apartment and not in remand? Does he have 'friends' at the Justice Department as well as at the Securities Exchange Commission?

Or is this because scum like Madoff ought to be treated better than poor kids who rob shops? Is that the reasoning? White collar crime seems to be considered OK while blue collar crime is not. It probably all boils down to the fact that establishment figures like Madoff are looked after by their own kind when their crimes are discovered. After all, it could happen to anybody in the corporate world these days. Who among them isn't doing a bit of insider trading, or cheating on their taxes, or running a little scam or two? And the big names in the corporate world are members of the same families who are running for 'high' office, sitting on the judicial benches, running the churches, and promoting each other in the armed services.

Corruption among the 'power elite' mostly goes unnoticed and uncommented. We don't see the handshakes, the nods and winks, and the seedy little conspiracies. When we do, we accept the mechanisms of privilege and preferment, even while the Gucci loafer is grinding down on our necks. Mostly, the people involved don't even realise just how corrupt they have become. But sometimes, when a case like Madoff's comes to light, we can see the elite in action.

It doesn't matter how many thousands of people have lost their pensions (and in America, that is no joke at all!) It doesn't matter how many thousands more have had the pittances they could scrape together after years of hard work, the plans and dreams that might have depended on those pittances, grabbed from them and trashed. It doesn't matter that charitable trusts and philanthropic funds had their investments in Madoff's companies, and that all the good they could have done will never now be achieved. No. Madoff is one of the boys and his mates will make sure he isn't treated in an undignified manner. After all, there but for the grace of God...

Disgusting creatures like Madoff are thick as flies these days. From the CEOs who award themselves fat 'bonuses' while their workers are being laid off to pay for it, to the out-and-out theives who find even the laissez-faire economic regulation of corporate America doesn't give them enough opportunity to satisfy their greed, the pigs are stuffing themselves at the trough.

Our global economy has a serious problem with corruption. Unfortunately, the people who have the power to do something about it - ordinary voters - are too stupid and ignorant to take the appropriate action.

15 December, 2008

Censored

I wrote to the Minister a little while ago regarding my concerns about the new Internet censorship scheme planned for Australia. His office sent me back a pro-forma PDF document explaining the scheme and the various additional measures (including additional policing and public awareness campaigns) they intend to put in place.

It was interesting and I'd love to share it with you but the communication also included this paragraph:

"The information transmitted is for the use of the intended recipient only and may contain confidential and/or legally privileged material. Any review, re-transmission, disclosure, dissemination or other use of, or taking of any action in reliance upon, this information by persons or entities other than the intended recipient is prohibited and may result in severe penalties."
Since this effectively gags me, I cannot tell you what the government's plans are. Sorry.

I might just say, though, that if the harmless publicity material they sent me had to be suppressed by threats like this, doesn't it speak volumes for the kind of people who are running the country? How can we trust them to build and operate tools that will censor the Internet when they think even their own vague and bland assurances have to be censored?

12 December, 2008

What's Up With Printers, Huh?

I bought a new printer yesterday. Funny thing is though, I only went into the shop to buy some printer ink.

My last printer (a Canon MP160) I bought after the one before that broke down. I found it in a KMart going cheap. At $67, I didn't much care what it's features were as long as it worked. And it did. Very well. When I ran out of ink, I went to but a new cartridge and found myself paying $94 for a pair (one black, one colour) - and this was a very good price. Since then, I've seen then at anything up to $120 a pair!

When I went out yesterday to buy another cartridge, I didn't have much time. I could only take 10 minutes in OfficeWorks in Brisbane in between other appointments. To my dismay, the black cartridge I wanted was $58. However, to get to them, I walked past a pile of Canon MP480 printers - almost identical spec to my Canon MP160 but with a much more attractive number - going for $99, including two full ink cartridges. It was a no-brainer really, especially when I discovered that the refill ink cartridges for the MP480 cost about half as much as those for the MP160. So I bought one. A new printer, that is.

The whole transaction has been bothering me ever since. For a start I can't understand why printer ink is SOOOO expensive. Is it just the printer companies ripping us off, or do they really make it out of orchid pollen, platinum, and the gonads of endangered bats? Something must account for why it is one of the most expensive liquids in the world, costing as much as $8,000 per gallon ($2,100 per litre) according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Secondly, since the printer, its software, its manuals and all that packaging is collectively worth about as much as one ink cartridge (because two cartridges and the printer (etc.) come to the same price as three cartridges) and it has circuit boards, lamps, motors, a colour LCD screen at least as good as the one on my 3G phone, many moving parts, and the look of something they paid an industrial designer to cast her eye over, why aren't all consumer electronics dirt cheap too?

And thirdly, given that printers are essentially disposable now (like the similarly-priced ink cartridges) where do printer companies get off not running printer recycling schemes so you can dump your old one responsibly and pick up a new one when your ink runs out?

There is something horribly wrong with this whole situation and I suspect it all comes down to massively inflated prices for printer ink. Why, for instance, are there so many different cartridge sizes? There have been printers around for decades now and nobody has come up with a standard format? And why are ink cartridges not refillable (and I mean from a bottle of ink I can pur into a reservoir in the printer)? And why don't ink cartidges say what their content by volume is? Or their content by square centimetres of printed surface? Or give any clue whatsoever what their capacity is? Could that be so that you can't make a rational choice about which printer to buy or which manufacturer's cartidges?

This has got to be a scam. Someone is cheating and profiteering. Call me paranoid but, when it gets so bad that a printer costs less than a complete ink refill, I smell a rat.


(Picture is from the San Francisco Chronicle, see link in text.)

06 December, 2008

Australian Labor Party Continues to Disappoint

While I'm moaning on about the Australian Labor Party's support for religious fundamentalist and moral pigmy James Bidgood and how this reflects on the party's ethics, I should also mention the new Internet censorship laws they're about to introduce.

Ostensibly a measure to filter out child pornography, Australia's new net censorship laws will allow the government to manage a blacklist of all the sites it does not want Australians to see and ensure that ISPs block them. The list has not been made public and, as far as I know, never will be. They simply want us to trust them that they're acting in our best interests and 'only' offensive sites will be censored.

Well I don't trust governments to know what is in my best interest (or the best interest of my children) and I certainly don't trust them to censor only offensively pornographic sites. It will only be a matter of time before political sites are on the blacklist (if they are not already). If you give the government the power to control the Internet, you no longer have freedom of information or freedom of speech. If you no longer have freedom of speech, you no longer have democracy. If you don't have democracy, you're stuffed.

The government may even think it is trying to do the right thing with this terrible law but it is not. It is creating the technical and political infrastructure that will allow totalitarian regimes to control our access to information.

This appalling state of affairs is barely mentioned in the media but it is not slipping by unnoticed. A series of protest marches is being organised for 13th November and I urge everyone who can to get out on the streets and let the Australian Labor Party and Kevin Rudd know what we think about this monstrous threat to our freedom.

As for what this says about the moral integrity of the Labor Party, someone calling themselves 'Megaport' writing on the geek site Slashdot put it very nicely. I quote him or her in full:

Just as the USA have lost their moral right to castigate countries who use torture as a tool of statecraft, so too has Australia now given up her right to criticise those authoritarian regimes who would limit the freedom of communication of their citizens.

Given that all the experts (yes, ALL the experts) agree that it won't stop anyone who actually traffics in this despicable content from peddling their filth even for a moment, can anyone here tell me what else we're buying for the price of our moral high ground on this issue?

China will be laughing their socks off at us next time we try to mention the censorship of news and internet in their country - no matter what language our leaders speak the message in.


The point about the ineffectiveness of the measure is actually a good one since there will be many ways for people who actually want child porn to get around it. So you have to ask yourself just why Kevin Rudd wants to go ahead and do this. It can only be that his government would like the general ability to censor material of which it disapproves.

05 December, 2008

Why is Bidgood Still in Parliament?

The House of Representatives Speaker says there should be no further action against James Bidgood, the religious fundamentalist MP who took a photograph of a man trying to set himself on fire and then sold the image.

This incredible conclusion was reached after the man's actions were investigated and, apparently, were found not to have interfered with 'the security situation' - whatever that means. The point is, Bidgood is clearly unfit for office - not just because of his radical religious fundamentalism - but because he has the morality of a jackall. If you see a man trying to burn himslef to death, you try to stop him. You don't take pictures. You don't try to sell the pictures afterwards. What kind of moral imbecile could think this was an appropriate course of action?

That Kevin Rudd, leader of the federal Labor Party, hasn't dismissed this moral earthworm is a serious reflection on Rudd's own character and on the state of the Australian Labor Party. I am ashamed of my government. I am ashamed of the party I have supported for so long. We got used to being ashamed of the government during the John 'lying weasel' Howard years, but I thought Kevin Rudd was going to change all that. Now what I'm seeing is the same kind of moral bankruptcy being supported by and tacitly encouraged by Kevin Rudd.

It is an absolute disgrace and a terrible disappointment that Bidgood is being defended and protected by his party.

04 December, 2008

Whoah! Nutter on the loose!

Here is an article from the Australian Online dated 4th December 2008 and attributed to Samantha Maiden.

LABOR MP James Bidgood, the first-time MP under investigation for selling pictures of a protester attempting to set fire to himself outside Parliament House, has declared the global financial crisis an act of God.

Mr Bidgood, who was carpeted by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd over his actions yesterday and apologised to Parliament, makes the new claims in a DVD, The Australian reports.

In a speech to a function held in Parliament he argues that Christian marches for Jesus in London caused the October 1987 stock market crash.

He also predicted the end of the world and one world monetary system.

"We have to say 'What would Jesus do?'," he said.

"In 1987 there was another march for Jesus. That took place in April. And guess what happened in October 1987? The stock market crashed. All property values lost one this of their value and over a million people lost their homes.

"I believe when Christians pray, God does things. I believe what is happening today is as much to do with God in economics bringing judgement."

He went on to warn that "there is God's justice in action in what has gone on here".

"I believe there is God's justice in action in what is going on here. We haven't seen the end of it.

"The ultimate conclusion is like I say, we look at Bible prophecy, we are going towards a one world bank and a one world monetary system. And if you believe the word of God and you read Revelations...you will see clearly what is being spelt out. We in the end times."
There are two things to note about this article. First is that it is choc-full of typos. This article was never proofread, probably not edited at all. From the number of glaringly obvious mistakes in the piece, Samantha Maiden didn't even read it over herself. It's atrocious! This really is not the standard that we expect from a national newspaper. It's not the standard we expect from a local free paper! This is just rubbish and the Australian and Ms Maiden should be ashamed. Australia should be ashamed!

The second is that Labor MP James Bidgood (yes, the Australian Labor Party really does spell its name that way!) is clearly a certifiable nutcase. The financial crisis is a punishment from God? And it happened because Christians prayed for it? People like this need psychiatric help. They are clearly unfit to hold jobs as burger-flippers, let alone MPs. Did he tell his constituents what a loony he is before they elected him, I wonder? Did he say, 'Vote for me guys, I'm a gibbering idiot who thinks Revelations is literally true?' Or 'I'm going to pray that millions of Australians lose their houses and their jobs because you all deserve it for being evil and, anyway, it's the end of the world soon, so there?' (Or whatever barmy nonsense this moron believes.)

Jeez, what with newspapers that can't string a sentence together and politicians who are scarily deranged, maybe we really in the end times after all.

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