Friday, January 30, 2009

For those who thought that Iraq would be over soon...

... there is a chilling reminder of how long and how deep the feelings can last.

Now I admit that until now I have taken the "peace" in Northern Ireland as an optimistic example of what can be achieved. This, however, must dampen the enthusiasm somewhat -
A new Northern Ireland reconciliation plan that gives the families of slain innocents and killers the same "recognition" payment provoked fury Wednesday from Protestants victimized by decades of IRA attacks.

Protestant hard-liners disrupted a Belfast press conference called to unveil - and sell to a sceptical public - the 18-month efforts of former Anglican Archbishop Robin Eames and former Catholic priest Denis Bradley.

As they prepared to speak, Protestant hard-liners jumped up from the crowd to hurl insults and condemnations - both at the two men and other audience members linked to the outlawed Irish Republican Army. The hecklers included men and women who lost relatives or were maimed in IRA attacks.

"My brother was an innocent man defending this whole community," said one protester, Hazlett Lynch, whose policeman brother was killed in a 1977 IRA ambush. "When IRA men died while launching cowardly attacks on this community, they actually received justice. The families of those murderers should not be consoled with a single penny today."

Their fury focused on an Eames-Bradley commitment to paying the nearest relatives of all 3,700 dead from the conflict 12,000 British pounds (US$17,000) each. The two former churchmen insisted that all families who lost loved ones deserve equal support - but once the anger had ebbed, Eames offered a qualified apology.

"Maybe this gesture, for those outside of our group, is too sudden. Maybe we did make a mistake in our timing. ... If so, we apologize," Eames said.

But he and Bradley stressed that their 192-page report, containing more than 30 proposals, would require citizens to take painful new steps down the road to lasting peace.

The recommendations by the leaders of a British government-appointed panel, called the Consultative Group on the Past, call for Britain to transfer investigative powers to a new panel called the Legacy Commission. Different branches of this group would seek to encourage former IRA members and other militants to come clean about their past; shed light on bitterly disputed killings involving British security forces; and encourage a divided public to talk to each other behind closed doors. The commission's work would take five years and require funding of more than 300 million pounds.

The British and Irish governments offered a muted welcome for the report's contents - reflecting their recognition of the Protestant side's undying hatred for the IRA.

In London, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he understood why the idea of paying out flat-fee payments to relatives of the dead "has evoked such controversy in Northern Ireland."

"The government is obviously going to consider the report with great care," he said.

But First Minister Peter Robinson, the Protestant leader of Northern Ireland's 20-month-old coalition government with Catholics, said he had "no doubt that many innocent victims will feel betrayed."

Robinson said he would ensure that Brown and other British officials do "not insult the innocent victims of terrorism by giving any weight to these offensive recommendations."

There is a video here. I recommend it because it does (if it is the same as that shown on last night's late news) also include comment from one from the Catholic side.

What the British are considering might, and might not, help to further heal the woulds of a now 100 plus year old conflict.

The dampened enthusiasm must reflect upon the likely outcome for Iraq. Certainly the history of the relationship between Sunni and Shia there is little different in scope and duration from the Catholic - Protestant "troubles" in Ireland.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Politics of MEME - 2

ALDaily again leads to this interesting little snippet. Now I am not going to go through the whole thing - to so do would not match up with my confirmation bias.

But take a look at this little piece -
Stanovich ... believes that the concept of intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, fails to capture key aspects of mental ability. But that doesn't mean he discounts the tests' credibility: "Readers might well expect me to say that IQ tests do not measure anything important, or that there are many kinds of intelligence, or that all people are intelligent in their own way," he writes. After all, theories about emotional and social intelligence — which weigh interpersonal skills, the ability to empathize, and other "supracognitive" characteristics — have gained popularity in recent years, in part by de-emphasizing the importance of IQ.

Instead, Stanovich suggests that IQ tests focus on valuable qualities and capacities that are highly relevant to our daily lives. But he believes the tests would be far more effective if they took into account not only mental "brightness" but also rationality — including such abilities as "judicious decision making, efficient behavioral regulation, sensible goal prioritization ... [and] the proper calibration of evidence."

Our understanding of intelligence, he writes, has been muddled by the discrepancy between the vague, comprehensive vernacular term, which encompasses all the functions and manifestations of "smarts," and the narrower theories that "confine the concept of intelligence to the set of mental abilities actually tested on extant IQ tests." The latter conceptualization allows intelligence to coexist with foolishness because IQ tests do not measure the rationality required to abstain from dumb decisions, according to the author. Casual observers, however, usually define intelligence broadly and are confused by inconsistencies: "Blatantly irrational acts committed by people of obvious intelligence ... shock and surprise us and call out for explanation."

The author notes that because most people — even educators and psychologists — accept test-defined intelligence as a fair assessment of mental faculties, we tend to dismiss inconsistencies between a person's IQ scores and rationality as indicators of a disorder or learning disability. So persistent is that faulty logic that "we are almost obligated to create a new disability category when an important skill domain is found to be somewhat dissociated from intelligence." As long as we continue to worship IQ tests that do not assess rational thought processes, we will continue to misjudge our own and others' cognitive abilities, warns the scholar.

In an earlier work, Stanovich coined his own term — dysrationalia — for "the inability to think and behave rationally despite adequate intelligence." That "disorder," he suggests, might afflict some of the smartest people you know.

[All of the emphasis is mine :) ]

So, what does this mean in the light of my earlier thoughts? The rationality of the "common man" is quite distinct from "intelligence".

Good to know that, because I went past the idea (with nothing more than a pair of pants to fly my seat on) and rejected it as irrelevance.

So, the idea of a "politic rationale" seems to be even further off.

TF and Dave should like that.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Politics of Me, ME, MEME...

Hat tip once more to the ALDaily crowd for this one (linked in the header).

It is quite satisfying to find, just once in a while, another of those instances where “someone important” is saying almost exactly what you have been trying to express for so long. OK, OK, that is nothing more than an expression of the good ol’ confirmation bias once again I have to agree. The sentiments that Keith Kahn-Harris and David Haye express could as easily be applied to the likes of neo-neocon, or Right Wing-nut or to me or anyone from the really truly left.

“The Politics of Me, Me, Me…”

This is not just a question of people with too much time on their hands beavering away at the keyboard on controversies that affect nothing – if it were “only” this, there would be little to worry about. The problem goes deeper. It is partly that so much of this activity is harmful and wasteful, in a context where intelligent citizens working in a spirit of constructive dialogue could in principle perform a useful role in clarifying issues and arguments and offering usable ideas to those seeking solutions to the conflicts concerned.

Even worse, this kind of internet politics is also engaged in by opinion-formers, major institutions and “the brightest and best” more generally. In the Jewish community - a world with which one of us is very familiar - those who are most committed and influential in what they view as the defence of Israel have, over the last few years, increasingly come to adopt the same style of politics and mode of address. They include (in the United States) high-profile intellectuals such as Alan Dershowitz and lobbying organisations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) and (in Britain) organisations such as Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre (Bicom). Pro-Palestinian activists, while usually less organised, also engage in these struggles with just as much fervid and driven commitment.

Both sides, all sides, have become tied up in intricate micropolitical struggles. At the moment these include: who exactly broke the ceasefire first; what the word “civilian” means; whether civilian casualties are simply “human shields”; what a “humanitarian crisis” consists of. In the recent past they have included long-running sagas such as whether Jimmy Carter is an anti-semite; whether settlements are illegal under international law; whether a particular BBC report is biased.
At root, these struggles can involve vital issues, but in the hothouse of the internet, they so often disintegrate into thousands of fragments - from the interpretation of an ambiguous phrase to the reliability of a single news item. The result of an internet war of attrition that produces an impenetrable fog of confusion - and must reinforce the indifference and alienation of the non-involved.

The latter point is vital, even though it may be of sublime indifference to the super-motivated partisans. The ultimate puerility of internet combat over the middle east means that the larger and most important issues - and the possibility of keeping in sight the big picture, a vision of a better future for the region - fade from view.
(Emphasis mine)
Now, you just gotta sit down think about this for a while. It is not a case (as I see it) of who is “right” or who is “left” or who is “right” and who is “wrong”. The point being made (and the reason for my agreement) is that it is not what is believed so much as why we believe it. And at that point you should now see the (none too subtle) rationale for my minor amendment to the original authors’ headline. It is a case of “The Politics of Meme…” as much as it is “The Politics of Me, Me…” and as much as it is about “The Politics of ME, ME…”.

How so?

Staying away entirely from the vexed topics of the Levant, we can see very similar “debates” in every corner of the blogiverse. To pick on individual blogs would be a travesty. The level of debate (and I know I am as guilty of this as the next) is truly little above the primordial slime. There is no objectivity, there is no reason, simply because for each individual participant the “answer” is self-evident, requires no reasoning, nor rational evidence of any kind. I know, I am as guilty as the next.

The cause is what comes back to my rehash of the original headline. It is all to do with memes,

...a unit or element of cultural ideas, symbols or practices; such units or elements transmit from one mind to another through speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena. … Memes act as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate and respond to selective pressures.

Again, how so?

Well, take as a simple example the Hannity “dittoheads”; not the people so described but the term and its useage. Think too how widespread the use of the term has become, and the general consistency of its use. It has become “an element of cultural ideas, symbols…”.

Another prevalent example is the modification of "liberal" (small 'l') in meaning from "generous, tolerant, abundant" or when applied to politics "favouring democratic reforms or favouring individual freedom". It has become - in the 'Net lexicon - a term of abuse and denigration with strong and intended implication of "Socialist" or "Communist" or "Collectivist".

It occurs to me as I write that the term “meme” itself is equally valid as an example. Remember the “meme” quizes and other little amusements. There would not a one blog that has not at some point linked to one of these. Yep, including this one.

The images and language are viral. They are picked up, carried along, swept through those parts of the blogiverse where they are regarded as “friendly”, die where the environment is hostile, and can become universal as well. Memes have become the lingua franca of internet debates. The concern expressed by Kahn-Harris and Haye centres on the debate where conflicting “political cultures” meet; the language, the symbology, the ideas change depending upon the political stance of the speaker.

The biggest pity of all is that the people, the bloggers who broadcast, distribute, promote these political memes are in very large part the ones who are unable to continue a debate with logic and reason. The memes and lingua franca surface when the ideas run out.

I will finish here (and concur) with the conclusion reached by Kahn-Harris and Haye -
The tools for a different kind of politics exist. What is needed is the will to turn away from self-obsessed and point-scoring politics to a politics that is actually about something. What is needed is a politics that reconnects individuals with each other, a politics that looks outwards as well as inwards, a politics that is not all about "ME".

That will require the dismantling of a powerful set of cultures, each as destructive as the rest.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Depressing thoughts, Depression generally, and the end of Christmas...

I am sitting here, replete after a lovely dinner of my wife's version of silverside beef, mashed spud, peas and a brown sauce (that was my contribution) and listening to the last of my Christmas presents... On the CD at the moment is Portishead and their "Third". Challenging listening, kinda partway between rock, folk, and Stockhausen or Blumenthaler.

Dredging my way through all of the weekends dross and general garbage, I came across Mike Moore writing in the Herald on a subject in which he would be uniquely qualified not just in NZ but internationally. Moore gained much (very justified) kudis for his short term at the helm of the WTO a few years back. Looking at the photo accompanying the article the rest has done him a world of good.
Remember the drama of the G20, the Top 20 industrialised nations, and their summit in Washington, DC, to address the need for concerted global action to address the economic crisis?

Presidents and prime ministers triumphantly agreed not to introduce any new protectionist measures, and to conclude the Doha Development Round.

Mindful of how the Great Depression of the 1930s was prolonged and made deeper by unilateral trade restriction, and that trade fell by 70 per cent in a few years, leaders left this important meeting basking in the glory of dynamic corrective action.

Once home, the opposite of what was said happened. China re-introduced tax breaks for exporters. India imposed caps on imports of steel. Duties on car imports into Russia have been raised. Billion-dollar bailouts to car manufacturers in the US were announced and France promised to protect companies from foreign predators with more than $12 billion. From Indonesia to Ecuador and Argentina, countries have introduced protectionist policies.

Lets just list those out -

China - tax breaks (government subsidies) on exports.
India - steel import quotas.
Russia - increased duties on imported cars.
USA - "the bailout"
France - (not listed by Moore) renewed and increased government subsidies on dairy production and export.
France - anti-competition (government) subsidies for French companies.

... and so the list goes on, almost interminably. No one can say that Moore has been complete in his list.
The World Bank suggests trade growth will be the lowest since World War II. Korean exports are down by 30 per cent (January, compared with a year ago); Taiwan 42 per cent and Japan 27 per cent.

Cargo leaving Long Beach, Los Angeles, fell by 18 per cent in a year. China's exports are falling dangerously - their growth may be cut by a third, creating severe social distress.

Friends report the air in Hong Kong and Beijing is cleaner than at the time of the Olympics, such is the industrial contraction.

Lloyds report that there are miles of ships anchored off Singapore and elsewhere, and that shipping companies have offered to waive fees on containers in some places, just charging broker costs to move half-full ships and maintain some cash flow.

Just too depressing.

But it doesn't end there.

Along with Portishead, I have also acquired the first two cd's out from Little Bushman. Long time readers will recall me singing the praises of Fat Freddy's Drop. Also recalled will be my thought that the music scene in NZ, and Wellington in particular, is almost incestuous in the way it works. Little Bushman was started by Warren "Mad Dog" Maxwell as a kind of offshoot from Fat Freddy.

Been looking for the lyrics for "Nature of Man" out on the 'net - no go. I'm not going to break the copyright. Google them, you can pick up any number of sampler tracks from MOG and elsewhere. The first stanza will give the idea -

Sunni against Shiite, Black on Black
Man against woman
What you think about that
Protest on a Catholic
Persecute the Jew
Can't help the neighbour
Neighbour might sue me.

Blame it on the Bible. Blame it on the war.
Blame it on the Govenor. That you voted for.
Dictator dining on the eagles purse
A Red moon is rising up above the Earth.

Take a look around. It is powerful stuff.

It is also quite depressing.

And that is before one gets anywhere near the latest Israeli military excusion (well, what else could it be if not a Cook's tour?). All of the lies and the bullshit that goes with it. (No, TF, I am not saying just the Israelis, the Israelis, Hamas, the US, all of them...
Put it on the ground
Spread it all around
Dig it with a hoe
It will make your garden grow.

All just too depressing. But it is also in the nature of man.

Good night! Tomorrow is Obama Day! Good luck America. Good luck world!

Monday, January 19, 2009

What a sorry pass...

In amongst all of the angst and hair pulling and sackcloth and ashes over the (seemingly rash) refusal to serve two Israeli women, I can but wonder if the same hue and cry would have erupted if a Jewish café owner had refused to serve two Muslim women in hijab.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Kea, kea, keaaaa

For those coming to NZ, this is how friendly the locals can get.

The picture comes from the Herald the other morning, published as one of the entries in the summer photo competition.

The bird is a kea, Nestor Notabilis. The one in the picture is just a youngster, one of this year's offspring. The adult bird is quite a bit bigger, and not something one would want on the other end of your hand. They are reknowned for stripping rubber sealing strip from car windows, bending car aerials, and (most unjustly) killing sheep.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Random quote...

No, sorry, hat tip to Jack Grant over at Random Fate -
Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism.
- Hubert Humphrey

To which I will add -
In April 1938 [Michael Joseph] Savage outlined the government's social security proposals... he started to use the term 'applied Christianity' to describe the government's scheme...

Thursday, January 08, 2009

After the festivities...

We (SWMBO and I as the rest of the family now have their own paths to walk) went north to Opo the Monday before Christmas. Work was done plastering the carport wall to get that all sealed off (to little avail but that will take another post)and painted.

Christmas dinner was enjoyable - roast lamb and veg, Demifroix ( I hate with intensity people who call it "demi-freddo" or "semi-freddo") made with apricot which was not an outstanding success.

Then we got into the serious business...

It ran through my mind while driving home that there is so much that happens in this world which, on reflection, matters very little.

Instances that come to mind -

The shenanigans around the Senate seat vacated by OHB.

The Israeli government getting into yet another "Wag the Dog" war with Gaza because their popularity with the electorate was dropping fast just a few weeks out from an election. Where did that deja vu flash come from?

GWB frantically trying to find something that people will remember him for. He found it - in the form of most of the North Pacific. What right he has to donate that area to posterity I don't know but I guess that after having the crap nuclear bombed out of it in the '50s and '60s there is little left there of real economic value.

Pontifications on the future of mankind from all manner of people from Il Papa on downward.

How education should be working and isn't. Interesting one this, as it is fairly close to the ol' cockles. Not worth pursuing though as half the world would not care and the other half would misinterpret the intent, and then half would think it a darned fine idea and spend the next 20 years and millions of bucks trying to make it work, which it probably wouldn't because the teachers think it is a stink idea anyway.

And so the list goes on. It does get quite depressing really.

Highlights? Walking to the Waiotemarama Falls. Took film rather than digital and might post up when I get the film back. Sometime. Seeing my sister for a second, no sorry third, Christmas dinner. Had Vichyssoise, boerewurst and salad for lunch. Nice. I did not take a dip in Stephan's moat. Biggest highlight was my first swim in 3 years, since Feb 06 in fact. Can't omit the woodchop on NYD. Always good fun, and the hangi was a good lunch for $8 a pop.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

It being Christmas Past and all…

and after looking in on the OldWhig I just can not let this past.

Dickens on Scrooge (from the very first few paragraphs of “A Christmas Carol”) –

Oh ! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, was Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! External heat and cold had little influence on him. No warmth could warm, no cold could chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he. No falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn't know where to have him. The heaviest rain and snow and hail and sleet could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect, -- they often "came down" handsomely, and Scrooge never did.

- the man for whom Al, and TF, and a number of others express admiration?
Compare that description of Scrooge with the opening of Scrooge’s two visitors seeking donations for “a worthy cause”, and the ensuing conversation…

"At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge," said the gentleman, taking up a pen, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, air."

"Are there no prisons?"

"Plenty of prisons. But under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the unoffending multitude, a few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?"


"You wish to be anonymous?"

"I wish to be left alone. Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas, and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the prisons and the workhouses, -- they cost enough, -- and those who are badly off must go there."

"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."

"If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

Now that little exchange, for the probligo at least, is one of the best described if not rather unkind characterisations of “capitalism” that has ever been written. Now, AL, TF and the rest of you, note the small “c”. It is not Capitalism – the economic term and system.

Butler Shaffer must have been groping in the darkest reaches of his own nethers if he is serious about his view that –
Make no mistake about it: my client has been the victim of a cruel criminal conspiracy to extort his money, as well as of such torts as intentional infliction of emotional distress, libel and slander, trespass, assault, malicious prosecution, battery, nuisance, and false imprisonment. To that end, my client may elect to bring his own suit, but for now let us focus upon his defense to this action. As we do so, pay particular attention to the utter contradiction underlying Dickens’ case: my client is charged with being a greedy, money-hungry scoundrel, and yet it is the conspirators against him who want nothing more than his money!

This is a joke, right? Dickens’ essential elements of that statement and characterisation of Scrooge are quoted above. Shaffer must have really been suffering a major columnist’s block perhaps even a major pre-Christmas hangover, to have seriously thought that Scrooge warranted a defence. As Marley said, when warning Scrooge of his last chance…
"O blind man, blind man! not to know that ages of incessant labor by immortal creatures for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life's opportunities misused! Yet I was like this man; I once was like this man!"

"But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

So, from this old atheist, man of a few letters, I rather belatedly wish all and sundry a very merry Christmas. The New Year wishes can wait for a few weeks – I quite prefer the Lunar New Year as ‘tis far more fun. And to all those who venerate Scrooge as the image of human perfection, those who (seem, at least to) think that humans are in some way less fallible than animals (the reverse is in fact true as animals are acting on instinct rather than intent and hence can do no evil) I wish a goodly dose of the same pox of selfishness and self-centred loneliness toward which Scrooge himself was bound.