31 December, 2009

Why I write about American politics

I’m a bit surprised that it hasn’t come up here more often, but a question I’ve been asked off and on for years is,
Why do you always talk about American politics?  You’re not American.  What does it matter to you?

There are several ways I could approach this.  I could talk about how I am going to become an American-in-law and therefore what happens there affects me more than your average auslander, but that would simply be an argument of convenience.

The first answer is that it’s just so bloody interesting.  Travellers will say that there are certain places that have colours you don’t see anywhere else.  Similarly, in politics, the US will give time of day to arguments that would be laughed at in other parts of the world.  By schoolchildren.  And I find it fascinating.  Infuriating, but fascinating.  When people give serious airtime to the notion that public health cover is both a communist and a fascist policy, how can you not slow down and take a look?

The more serious answer is this:
If I were to use the expression, “The leader of the free world,” who would you think I was referring to?
If your answer was the president of the United States, then you just proved my point.

The last time I checked, I live in the free world, but I didn’t vote for him.  More importantly, I didn’t get a chance to vote against him.  It would seem to me that if the US were serious about leading the world, and about democracy, it should open its elections up to all regions that it expects to influence.

Okay, so that’s the abstract, debating-society argument.  But how do the actions of the US really affect me?  Well, you might have heard a bit about this global financial crisis that’s been going around.  Every government loves to call it a “global” crisis, since that means no-one really has to take responsibility for it.  Where did this crisis begin?  It wasn’t in Brussels.  It wasn’t in London or Hong Kong.  No, the credit meltdown happened as a direct result of US economic policy, which was based on the assumption that if government just got out of the way and allowed the market to do as it pleased, people would naturally act in their own best interest and everyone would be happy.  We know now, how that turned out.  Because of the interdependence of national economies, the ripple effects of the Wall Street meltdown spread around the world with devastating speed.  Other countries may have been aware that self-regulation is a contradiction in terms, but nothing they could do with their own markets was going to stop the domino effect started in the US.  Where is the recourse?  Where is the accountability?  Naturally, the US government has the right to conduct its own affairs as it sees fit, but when those affairs impact on the affairs of others who have no say in US policy, we at least have the right to comment.  If taxation without representation is tyranny, what do you call plunging half the world into recession without representation? 

Then there is the current brouhaha over health insurance in the US.  That’s a purely domestic issue.  Why should I have an opinion on that?  Well, granted, it’s no skin off my nose if America chooses to regard health care as a commodity to be bought and sold rather than a fundamental human right as most of the rest of the free world does.  It’s nothing to do with me.  Not unless you count the friend who, despite being fully insured, is being forced to wait up to three months to have the kind of procedure that I would expect to be able to get in my GP’s office on the first consultation.  And not if you count the other friends who live in the grey area where they earn too much to qualify to Medicare but not enough to be able to afford insurance.  But if you don’t count caring about friends, then I don’t have a horse in that race. 

What I do have, is a pretty low tolerance for bullshit – and some of the bullshit that has been coming out of this debate is trophy size.  And it does involve my country because some of the opponents of “socialised medicine” try to use the Australian system as an example of why it doesn’t work.  Australia has had universal public health care since 1975 and the current system has been in place since 1983.  I have friends and family who have gone through heart attacks and brain tumours and received sterling treatment with no out-of-pocket expenses or private insurance.  And if people would prefer to buy private insurance, you can do that too.  It’s a free country after all.  Do we pay extra tax for this?  Of course we do.  But it’s nothing compared to the cost of private insurance.  You will hear Australians complain that we are taxed too highly.  Here’s a news flash for you: Everyone thinks they’re taxed too highly.  You could have a tax rate of one dollar per year and there would still be people who say, “What, every year?”  So let’s just accept that people moaning about taxation is as inevitable as taxation itself.  But whatever the system, you get what you pay for.  We pay tax and in return we get services, like police, fire brigades, schools and hospitals.  As a Twitter comment defending the British NHS put it, “We have social health care because we are a society. God knows what the yanks are.”  So if our system is going to be used as an example of the tyrannical nature of looking after citizens, I’m going to have something to say about that.  It’s not that outsiders don’t have the right to comment on our system, just so long as it’s informed comment.

Let me put it this way: even if you’ve never agreed with a word I’ve said on politics, I think most people would agree that I’m a reasonably savvy customer when it comes to how we are governed.  So here’s my question:  If I had been living in a nightmarish socialist dystopia for the last 26 years.... don’t you think I would have noticed?

The final reason that I, and many others who might not initially appear to have an interest, express an opinion on US politics is because so much of the world’s news comes out of America now.  Of course, it’s not the US government’s fault that so many networks (mostly commercial ones, James!) have chosen to shut down their international bureaus in favour of getting it all on a feed out of Atlanta, but they should at least be aware that they are presenting themselves to the world. The whole world, not just the bits of it that play in the World Series.  And the more people hear a story, the more likely they are to form an opinion on something, whether it concerns them or not.  For example, there have been many and varied opinions expressed in recent weeks about how a golfer’s wife should best deal with his infidelity.  I don’t know what this has to do with anyone outside their family, but it’s all been reported and so everyone has an opinion on it. 

This is also the reason why Americans don’t comment on Australian politics as much.  (I only choose Australian politics because I am Australian.  It could just as easily be any other country, with a couple of exceptions)  They just don’t hear about it as much.  I welcome all views on how we run ourselves.  I might agree or I might disagree but I won’t pull out the “you don’t live here, what’s it to you?” argument.  Then again, if foreigners don’t have the right to comment on how other countries conduct themselves, maybe America doesn’t have the right to talk about how Iran, or Venezuela, or North Korea behave.  If America wants to hold itself up as an example to the world, that invites closer scrutiny.  What some people in the US should realise is that just because the actions of other governments don’t affect them doesn’t mean the actions of their government don’t affect others.  When they do, people are going to have things to say about it.

30 December, 2009

Headlines from Next Year

Why wait for the tragically predictable?


Apple drops the price of new iTablet by 25%, angering those who spent a week camped outside malls a month earlier in order to be the first to own them.

Sean Hannity demands DNA sample from Barack Obama to prove that he is human. Also questions whether the president is really over 35 and from planet Earth.

Microsoft assures users that upcoming release of SP1 will correct most issues with Windows 7.

Footballer placed on good behaviour bond for urinating in public says, “I just want to put it behind me and get on with my life."

Obama insists that despite the initial delay, Guantanamo Bay will be closed by January 2011.

Sarah Palin supporters blame “personal attacks by the TV ratings system” for the cancellation of her Fox News talk show.

The word “hashtag” added to Oxford English Dictionary.

CNN launches new flagship program, “Stuff we found on the internet.”

Owners of BitTorrent website abunchofthieves.com tell court “Who us? Steal? Never!”

Dick Cheney claims that thinking critical thoughts about him will cause the ground to open and swallow you up.

New social networking site moodring.com allows users to express themselves purely by colour.

Rock band says they hope to tour Australia “possibly next year.”

New Sacha Baron Cohen film to feature outrageous character who confuses unsuspecting Americans.

Administration backpedals on Iraq withdrawal date.

Speculation mounts about Abbott’s future as Liberal leader.

New online game Third Life allows socially awkward Second Life avatars to live out their fantasies.

Accusations of bribery and corruption in Olympic bidding process.

Local council attempts to create physical space inspired by online networking models. Working title for the project is “a park.”

29 December, 2009

Strawberry Fields Radio - Episode 75

After a week off work, I've felt the creative energy rushing back and it was nice to be able to do an end-of-year show.



28 December, 2009

GIMME SOME TRUTH, The Making of John Lennon's Imagine Album (1986/2000)

We can be grateful that John Lennon filmed just about everything he did. With very little in the way of narration, this fly-on-the-wall program is a fascinating insight into the birth of a classic.

It's hard to tell whether the film is shown chronologically or if it has been recut. What's clear is that there is an olive branch to Paul in the way the film has been edited. There is bitterness and derision towards Paul before and during the recording of How Do You Sleep? but immediately afterwards, they show John explaining to a bewildered fan who wandered onto the property that Carry That Weight was actually Paul's song, “but he was talking about all of us.”

We also get an interesting look into how Yoko earned her producer's credit. Her suggestions range from the insipid (“let's try and give them the right one”) to quite perceptive. She says, quite rightly, that there is too much improvisation in the early takes of How Do You Sleep? and that it should be a steady groove.

The music is remixed in Dolby 5.1 and while the film has plenty of music, it does make you long for a full length surround mix of the album – especially I Don't Wanna Be A Soldier and Gimme Some Truth.

With lots of mumbling and crosstalk, the subtitles become very handy – although there are times when even they give up and just say, “unintelligible.”

The bonus feature is the complete interview given to a journalist by John and Yoko about young people and sexuality. It's relevant to the documentary because it was the interview was done at the same time and excepts from it are used in the main feature. There's also a complete discography.

Highlight: John and George doing a take of Oh My Love.
Feature: * * * * *
Extras: * * *
Audio: Dolby Stereo, Dolby 5.1

26 December, 2009

Thinking of Linking

Around the time I started this 'blog, I created accounts at Digg and StumbleUpon too and over the year, I've alternated between whichever was the least annoying to use at the time. There are now about 200 of these 'social bookmarking' services.  I don't get what's social about it, unless they were expecting people to say, "Hey! You liked that wedding video too? Let's be buddies!" but I haven't seen that happen.  I've used them mainly for pages I want to put aside to read later since I often use three different computers in a day.  Some of them I've only just come back to now, but I thought I'd post them there to give you an idea of some of the things I've been reading over the year.  I could have just linked to my Digg and StumbleUpon profiles, but the interfaces of both are so annoying that I wouldn't wish them on you, and I find it handier to have them all here in one spot anyway.

If anyone is thinking they can build up a profile from this list, good luck with that!  Don't go thinking, "Aha! He visited Huffington Post!  I knew he was a screaming leftie!"  Most of them came from RSS feeds.  I don't necessarily endorse or support all of the views on this list.  They're simply some articles I found interesting during the year.  You might find them interesting too.  If not, I won't be doing it again for another year.

News and Politics - Australia:
Sam the Koala
Turnbull’s stimulus suicide
Is it wrong to want fame?
Blokes make cars, women make clothes … guess who wins
Neo-Liberal Meltdown
Jetstar fined $148k for breaking airport curfew
Code of silence: the murky mix of stars, sex and sports writers
Film and TV legend Charles 'Bud' Tingwell dies
Murdoch slams BBC dominance  
(Are you shitting me?)
A few words on diplomacy with China
Dust storm from space
Father Bob fighting forced retirement
Robes of office not in Costello’s size
Why AFACT v iiNet is important
Get off yr lzy butt, stupid gvt. Yr interfering w/ AWSMNESS!
Malcolm Turnbull talks straight on climate change
Balibo killings were 'rational', says former Indonesian army colonel
Is it time to cut and run from Afghanistan?
Bernard Keane’s guide to writing to Ministers
The 2009 Crikey Arsehat Awards
Father Bob on Mary MacKillop

News and Politics - US:
Who's Keeping Burger King Workers Below the Poverty Line?
CNBC Editor: The People Are Revolting!
Rick Santelli's Offensive Rant Against the Housing Bailout
The death-penalty debate needs more information
Billionaires for Teabagging!
Cringely: How to End the Recession
Will Obama back 'truth commission' to probe Bush practices?
It's Patriotic To Criticize: How our generals got so mediocre.
Rick Santelli's rant was a preplanned right-wing scam to torpedo Obama's economic agenda
RNC's Steele attacks Rush. Apology forthcoming....   
(they were right!)
Limbaugh's Dirty Little Secret of Radio "Success"
No happy ending yet, 30 years after mom set baby on fire
Teabagging Michelle Malkin
America's poor are its most generous givers
Aaron Sorkin Conjures a Meeting of Obama and Bartlet
Commentary: What’s up with Dick Cheney?
Barack Obama: he’s bringing dignity back
What Cheney knew — and why it’s a test for Obama
Harry Shearer: Why the Birthers?
Republican Death Trip
In America, Crazy Is a Preexisting Condition - Birthers, Town Hall Hecklers and the Return of Right-Wing Rage 
Those crazy ole Republicans aren’t funny anymore 
Racist? Me?... But, I Was Only Joking 
d r i f t g l a s s: Like A Virgin 
Harolds Left: 9-12s Underbelly 
Dear Time Magazine: About that subscription renewal ... 
Caroline Myss: Republicans and the Art of Racism 
Fear was no excuse to condone torture
How Ayn Rand Became an American Icon
Obama predicts execution for 9/11 suspect  
(We're going to try him, convict him and kill him. Does that sound like a fair trial?)
Leaving the Right - The Daily Dish


News and Politics - World:
Taleban announce Swat ceasefire
Russian advice: More troops won't help in Afghanistan
Witnesses to Moscow's Afghan war
Iraq Shoe-Thrower Jailed for 3 Years Tibetan monk 'shot' while on fire
This is what real media bias looks like
President of Guinea-Bissau assassinated
Bob Ellis: The economic consequences of George, Gordon and Milton
Bob Ellis: Massacre of the innocents
Slumdog stars 'to get new homes'  
(Great! Now what about everyone else?)
Preliminary Analysis of the Voting Figures in Iran’s 2009 Presidential Election
Row over Afghan wife-starving law
Gauguin 'cut off Van Gogh's ear'
Chinese massacre film stirs debate
Brussels, home of Tintin and the EU
Challenge: Why did Arafat Receive a Nobel Prize, and Not Reagan?
Top 25 Censored Stories for 2010
The False US Friends of the “Iranian People” (An Open Letter to Charles Krauthammer)


Science and Technology:
Why Google’s Software Update Tool Is Evil
Why I hate Facebook
Dark Energy to Erase Big Bang's Fading Signal
Understanding Depression
Is Crowdsourcing Evil? The Design Community Weighs In
How to Make a Presentation Like Al Gore
April 1, 2004: Gmail Hits Webmail G-Spot
7 (Crazy) Civilian Uses for Nuclear Bombs
Hit save before dot-com becomes dot-gone
A Mac user's take on the Windows 7 user interface
Going bananas for energy in Africa
The Hidden Cost of a Solar Power Plant
Gold nanotubes boost DVD storage
The high costs of running YouTube.
Google Blog: Money scams
How Twitter Will Change the Way We Live
iPhone Jailbreaking Could Crash Cellphone Towers, Apple Claims
Unsung heroes save net from chaos
Earth's Climate Outside 'Safe Operating Space'
Electric Hand Dryers vs. Paper Towels
Death knell looms for southern bell frog   
(How quickly things can change)
Better the broken Windows than life with the Mac monks
Create a Virtual Machine of your Existing Computer
Oct. 28, 1793: Whitney’s Cotton Gin Patent Not Worth Much
Defending some “fancy pants arguments”
Microsoft may help News Corp. delist sites  
(The worst news source removed from the best search engine? I call that they best of both worlds)
10 Years After Y2K -- Stories From the IT Battlegrounds
Climate Change for Idiots
Fast is best for Band-Aid removal: scientists  
(Surely a candidate for an Ig Nobel Prize)
Why there's no sign of a climate conspiracy in hacked emails

Music:
A Future Cup Of Urine How much are you willing to pay for a cup of piss?
'Intimidation' behind Oasis split  
(I think Noel had been carrying him for too long anyway)
Bruce Cockburn gets a rocket launcher
Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick on Abbey Road
My $62.47 Royalty Statement: How Major Labels Cook the Books with Digital Downloads

Animals:
Like a pig in...  
Brutality in Egyptian pig cull 
Racehorse's health restored 1 year after hellish descent
Chimp-Made Toolkit Most Complex Ever Found
Chimps stand silent to mourn friend

Humour and Satire:
Calvin explains the economic crisis
Chance of people believing an outrageous statement
Rush Limbaugh: Voice of the People
Too Big to Fail
Political Correctness
Cartels
Farnarkeling
60-Year-Old Hippie Pitied By 40-Year-Old Punk
The best London Underground Tube map pastiches
Yamaha CEO Pleased With Current Production Of Jet Skis, Alto Saxophones, Snowmobiles, Power Generators, Scooters, Golf Carts
A Retort to Carly Simon Regarding Her Charges of Vanity.
Easter Island
Cat Congress Mired In Sunbeam
Ode To Party-First Republicans
O Capn,my Capn
Dogbert tweets
Also explains climate-change 'sceptics'
The sky is falling ... oh wait. It's just an apocalyptic asteriod
Beatles 3000
Climate Summit

Miscellaneous:
The Saddest Bear of All
The full fonty: why type nerds went mental over IKEA
Yotels
The mechanics of tipping in the USA
Why Nice Guys Should Finish First — but Don't
Lack of computer skills foils many job-seekers
"I could care less" vs. "I couldn't care less" The Question Ends Here  
(Everyone should know this)
Soda Bread
A Walk Through Time

24 December, 2009

A disclosure:

Over the next couple of days, I will be editing all links that pertain to music or DVDs and changing them to  Amazon links.  Previously, I had used a mix of various online stores that I’ve had good experiences with, usually going with whichever one had the best price or the clearest picture.  My reason for changing them is because I have just signed up with Amazon Associates.  I am not supposed to announce this, so instead, I am quietly disclosing it.  I know I could probably go ahead and do this without anyone noticing, but I’d notice and I wouldn’t want to be keeping anything from you. 

Basically, how it works is that if anyone clicks on an Amazon link from this site and that same session results in a sale, I get a small percentage in kickback.  That being the case, I will be amazed if I make more than 50 cents out of this, but in the unlikely event that I do generate traffic and sales, then I might as well wet my beak.

I will not be posting links any more or less than I always have.  I’ve only ever posted them for the reader’s information.  If I ever start blatantly suggesting that you go on over to the good folks at Amazon, then you will know I have turned and you should delete me from your bookmarks.  I could also put search boxes and promotions in the sidebar, but that’s not my style.  Having said that, I’ve never had anything against ads on ’blogs.  Google ads are pretty unobtrusive and if I enjoy a ’blog that has ads, I usually click on them no matter what they are.  It’s easy to open the links in a new tab, let them load, then close them a minute or so later.  It costs nothing and if it puts a couple of cents in the pocket of a ’blogger I like, then I’m happy to do it.

In fact, here’s a trick you can use: whenever I find an ad objectionable, I’m always sure to click it.  It costs the advertiser money, they think they’ve gained some new interest when they haven’t, and it generates a little income for the site I do like, so everyone’s happy.  I have considered having Google ads here and so far, decided against it but I don’t think it compromises a ’blog.

So if – and only if – you find yourself wanting any kind of item referenced here, following the links posted will mean I get a modest cut if you end up making a purchase.  And if you find a better deal elsewhere, then by all means take it.  If I had my druthers, I’d never shop online.  I can’t adequately describe how satisfying it was in 2007 when, after 14 years of special orders and imports, I was able to walk into my local record shop, pull the new World Party release out of the rack, slap it down on the counter and give the assistant a knowing look as if to say, “Why yes, I am buying the new World Party album!  Nice of you to notice.  Oh, you didn’t?  Never mind.”  I’d love to get everything from my local but since I can’t be sure of getting the edition that I want at a reasonable price, then I have to find alternatives.  For those of you in the same situation, here’s another alternative.

If anyone objects to this arrangement, please let me know.

22 December, 2009

LENNON LEGEND – John Lennon (2003)

The CD of the same name was really just The John Lennon Collection repackaged for the Britpop generation, now rendered doubly redundant by the recent two-disc compilation. But there is much to recommend the DVD version. It's primarily a collection of video clips for all John's singles, with audio very tastefully remixed for 5.1. Many of the songs never had film clips when released, but John was such an avid home movie maker that there was ample footage to assemble clips from for the video world. Many have been made especially for this DVD.

Extras include a couple of live performances, some more home movie footage and animations of John's drawings. Great menus too!

Highlight: Mind Games
Feature: * * * *
Extras: * * *
Audio: LPCM Stereo, Dolby 5.1, DTS


Previously posted at Strawberry Fields and at Fishpond.

19 December, 2009

GOOD EVENING NEW YORK CITY – Paul McCartney (2009)

This review is based on the MP4 download. I'll post an update on the DVD features after my physical copy arrives.

Good Evening New York City is Paul's fifth live album of his career and fourth live DVD since he resumed touring in 2002. While it may seem a bit like overkill on the latter count, the real question is, Has Paul finally made a decent concert film? I'm delighted to report that the answer is a resounding Yes!

The fact that these shows marked the opening of CitiField, the replacement for Shea Stadium, left the door wide open for yet another rehash of Beatlemania but they resist that tempation. Apart from a 60-second introduction, they leave the historical references to Paul's between-song anecdotes, some of which, we haven't even heard before. This is, finally, a complete two and a half hour concert featuring the music, all the music and nothing but the music. And too many shots of the audience too, but I guess you can't have everything. However, even these are mercifully brief compared to previous efforts. They appear to have been shot by fans and are probably part of bonus features on the DVD.

Also, given the setting, it would have been so easy to simply make it a Beatles show but the setlist in the first half is a good mix of Beatles, Wings, solo and even two Fireman songs. Come the second half, it's wall-to-wall Beatles with the one exception of Live and Let Die, but that's perfectly understandable for this particular show. Although this is the first live DVD to include Mrs Vandebilt and A Day in the Life, we've seen them on YouTube so much over the last year that the freshness they should have is gone. That's not so for Day Tripper, which by rights should always have been a live favourite but has had no post-Beatles performances until now.

It's a bit surprising to note that Paul's live band has now been together with the same lineup longer than any other band he has toured with. It certainly shows. They are completely relaxed and confident, not starstruck as they were on the earlier tours. Billy Joel shows up in the first encore to join in on I Saw Her Standing There, as Paul did at Billy's final show at Shea Stadium last year.

The presentation as a whole has the feel of a live television broadcast more than polished concert film. This is a good thing and actually adds to the live feel. The only place where things go a little awry is during I'm Down, where they try to cut back and forth between the 2009 show and the Beatles' shambolic but brilliant performance at Shea. If you're wondering if Wix plays the keyboard with his elbow, you'll just have to find out for yourself.

The other big surprise of Good Evening New York City comes as the credits roll. The concert film was directed by Paul himself. That makes it all the more curious that Paul spent most of the decade commissioning fawning fanboy pieces when he was perfectly capable of producing a great film on his own. For sure, it's a fairly no-frills production for such a big show, but that's what makes it so great. When you've got the man and his music, you don't need anything else. If you want a McCartney live DVD that really is a live concert, this is the one to get.

Highlight: Sing the Changes, Day Tripper
Feature: * * * * ½
Extras: TBC
Audio: TBC

My Old Guitar Amp

This post is prompted by a cartoon from the rather excellent xkcd.

My main amp these days is a nice little HiWatt combo, but I've always hung onto this old valve amp that I picked up for $40 at an auction some twenty years ago.


If you click to see the larger picture, you might notice a couple of things about it. One is that it comes from a bygone era when Australia had an electronics industry. But take a closer look at the dials.


Sorry Nigel!



18 December, 2009

Why Y2K Mattered ....and still does

I was flicking through a book called History’s Worst Decisions and the People Who Made Them and there’s a chapter in the back of it called The Y2K That Never Came. Ten years later seems like a good time to talk about a problem that is even more misunderstood now that it was then.

To recap, when computers were in their infancy, any amount of data processing that could be simplified was of great benefit, so when it came to dates, the year was abbreviated to the last two digits, as has always been common practice when writing dates. They knew even in the 50s, that this would cause problems come the turn of the century but assumed that by then computers would be so advanced that it wouldn’t matter. The problem with leaving things up to the future is that eventually, the future arrives. Computers were of course advanced enough by then but the software they were running was often built on top of decades of older versions that still expressed the year as two digits. In the mid 90s, programmers realised that they had better start taking the problem seriously.

And it was a very serious problem – not just one of having to recalculate the interest on millions of bank accounts. When a computer is programmed to assume the year is 19xx, that would mean that when the clock ticked over at the end of 1999, computers would think it was 1900. If a computer finds it is finishing an operation 100 years before it started, that’s an illogical instruction - like dividing by zero - and illogical instructions can cause crashes. That is where the danger lay. It wasn’t that people would get parking tickets for -100 years, it was that computers that controlled vital services may suddenly lock up. Anyone capable of reading this knows that when your computer crashes, it’s usually caused by something fairly trivial but you still lose everything else you were doing. So while your last crash may have been caused by that Cool Web Search toolbar that you didn’t realise you’d installed, that also caused you to lose the essay you were writing at the time, the email you were reading and the card game you were playing. Likewise, an illogical instruction caused by the absence of two little digits had the potential for knock-on effects that could have been disastrous in some cases.

As we all know, none of the predicted doom came to pass. That’s not because the threat was overstated. It’s because we dealt with it. Yes, pat yourself on the back humanity! For once, we actually saw a crisis coming and managed to avert it without mass devastation.

And because we managed to avoid disaster, the conventional wisdom is that there was never a threat to begin with and we were all worried about nothing. That’s the premise of the chapter in History’s Worst Decisions, because the decision it’s talking about is not the decision to leave the two digits out but the decision to do something about it. It lists the motivation as ‘greed,’ the culprit as ‘most of the western world,’ and the damage done as ‘hundreds of billions of pounds in wasted effort and stress.’ I don’t know where the authors get that absurdly round figure from but you can’t say the effort was wasted when it clearly worked. It’s one case where the experts are victims of their own success. Perhaps if we’d had a bit more chaos, people would be satisfied that there was a serious problem to be dealt with.

Much of the rest of the article focuses on the alarmist book, Time Bomb 2000 by Edward and Jennifer Yourden – a pretty easy target. Of course it’s true that there was some ridiculous hype over Y2K, with people preparing to go back to the pre-industrial age, but that doesn’t mean the threat was non-existent. The reality is that there’s a small minority of the population that secretly relishes the idea of stockpiling ten years’ worth of tinned food and bullets and taking to the hills. For them, any excuse will do, whether it’s nuclear war, Y2K or a Democratic president. The only thing they haven’t used as a pretext for indulging their survivalist fetish is climate change, which I find curious because it’s the kind of thing that should be right up their alley.

Whether the Yourdens’ book was an honest warning or shameless profiteering from hype, it’s right to look upon it as a quaint and amusing relic these days. But it should also be recognised that the absence of any calamities due to Y2K shows what can be done when we listen to the science, free from political and business agendas. In the increasingly unlikely event that we manage to avoid serious upheaval from climate change, “sceptics” will point to that success as evidence that that threat never existed either. No good deed goes unpunished.


Update: I'm happy to learn that not everyone has adopted the assumption that there was nothing to Y2K and that those who warned of it are getting due recognition. I received an email this morning with the following link:
http://lifeboat.com/ex/guardian2009

16 December, 2009

Talking Points (repost)

The following is prompted by an interesting post and discussion at Mia's 'blog on the same subject. I wrote this a few years ago so the examples are horridly out of date. I could have rewritten it giving current examples but frankly, I couldn't be bothered and you'll all get the point anyway.
Interestingly, I was criticised when I first posted it for giving two examples that apparently make Republicans look bad. Personally, I think both examples are equally insulting to the intelligence, but see what you think. I have never bought into the idea that if you say a Republican said something stupid, you have to "balance" it by saying a Democrat said something stupid too. If someone says the world is round, do you have to "balance" that by speaking to someone who says it's flat?


The war on talking points

It’s about time we had one. Like mixed metaphors, misused phrases and other forms of poor expression, parroted talking points are now so common in the news media that we hardly notice what a blight they are on public discourse any more. It’s worst in America, but where America goes, others follow and I certainly don’t want to go there.

Watching, reading or listening to the US news media today, it’s increasingly hard to tell the party talking points from the actual analysis – if, indeed, there even is any analysis any more. These days, the party machine sends out the hymn books, and the commentators dutifully sing from them.

Let’s look at a few “issues” that have originated at party headquarters and ended up masquerading as news analysis:

The talking point:
Media reporting of bad news from Iraq is damaging the war effort, endangering the soldiers and deliberately ignores the good news.

The reality check:

This very popular talking point from the Republicans is designed to blame the messenger for bad news and also foster the idea that ignorance is patriotic. But it fails to recognize a few basic truths about news. The fact is that news, by its nature, is bad. If good news rated, then it would be reported. The responsibility for that lies with the viewer.

Scenario 1: Let’s say there’s a multi-vehicle pileup on a major freeway. One person is killed, seven more are injured, two seriously. It’s the third such accident on that stretch of road this year. Is the news report obliged to “balance” the story by stating that everyone else got home safely? Are they also obliged to state that it’s no reflection on the state of the road or traffic management, despite the regularity of such accidents?

Scenario 2: A new school opens in a disadvantaged area of, let’s say, Baltimore. It has places for 700 students and creates 90 full-time jobs plus ancillary staff. On the same day, there is a bank robbery in, let’s say, Cincinnati. Things go wrong. Shots are fired. By the time anyone figures out what has happened, two bank customers are dead and the bandits have escaped with $150,000. Which of these two events is going to be higher up on the news? More to the point, which are you more likely to tune in for? How many people can honestly say they would be thinking “Never mind about the shooting, tell us more about the school!”?

Answer the questions to these two scenarios honestly, and you’ll answer every question about whether the war in Iraq is being reported responsibly. If people in Britain had simply been told Don’t worry, be happy, in World War 2, then perhaps they wouldn’t have sent all those boats to Dunkirk to bring their soldiers to safety. If Australian troops had “stayed the course” at Gallipoli, we might still be there. Just in case anyone has forgotten, we went on to win both those wars, despite the “negativity” of withdrawing from an unworkable situation.


But don’t let any of this make you think that the intellectual fairy floss of talking points is an exclusively Republican thing. The Democrats love their talking points just as much and they are just as insulting to people’s intelligence. Check out their opening salvo for 2006,

The talking point:
George W Bush is living in a bubble, out of touch with the real world. *

The reality check:
Let me get this straight. This is a man who had an ultra-privileged upbringing, who never had to try hard for anything. He bankrupted every business he ever managed, but that still didn’t hurt him because there were always some nice Arabs around to bail him out. So he has never had to suffer the consequences of his actions. And now he is one of the most protected people on the planet with all his information filtered by his minders. And you’re telling me that he might be out of touch with real life? Tell me something I don’t know!

The Bush-bubble talking point should have won the annual No-shit-Sherlock! award but Democrat-leaning hosts, commentators and bloggers dutifully picked it up and repeated it as if it was something that had only just been brought to their attention. And perhaps it had. Perhaps they have become so used to getting their talking points on a feed from the parties that they have forgotten a time when they ever had to make up their own minds.

Any other professional would be insulted if they got emails from people outside the industry suggesting how they should do their jobs today. But the American news media laps it up. It’s so much easier than having to do research or analysis. But if there are daily things that the parties want discussed, then obviously there are things that they don’t want discussed. Surely those are the things that people need to know about. What might those things be? We never find out because the editors have it so easy on their drip feeds of talking points that they’ve forgotten how to do things like ask questions.

The news media is not biased – just criminally lazy.

Originally posted at Strawberry Fields, 18 June, 2006


* 2009 Update: It surely won't be long before Republicans trot this talking point out regarding Obama. And they will be right of course. For at least the next three years (and probably the next seven, the way the Republicans are behaving) he will never have to put his hand in his pocket for anything, never have to drive his own car or dial his own phone. Naturally, this will result in some detachment from ordinary people. It goes with the job. Most leaders rely on their staff to keep them in touch with average folk and those staff are probably just as out of touch as their boss, living in the same political bubble and writing some of these very talking points. So when the right wing inevitably uses the bubble talking point, it will be just as true as it was in 2006, just as obvious, and just as pointless.
Balanced enough for ya?

Christmas albums

No, not albums of Christmas songs, but the rush of releases for the Christmas market. Which ones are you hoping for?

Please Take Me Seriously Again
- George Michael

We Are Like So Sticking It to the Man
- Pearl Jam

Mention the War

- Roger Waters

Veem, Blashh, Flibble Flibble Flibble (Anatomy of Agony)

- Radiohead

You Know the Album I had a Hit With Last Year? Here's the Same Thing Again, Vol. 2

- Rod Stewart

The Very Best of Elton John plus One Track from the Last Album

- Elton John

Coldplay Would be Nothing Without Us. Nothing!

- Travis

What's Cool This Year? Make Me Sound Like That

- Madonna

Back By Popular Demand.... okay, would you believe Glenn Wheatley?

- John Farnham

Greatest Hits and one song from the Last Record

- David Bowie

How to be Incredibly Kickable and Still Get Away With It

- U2

All Time Greatest Hits and the best Track on the Last Album

- Billy Joel

The Best of Iggy Pop
- Jet

What exactly is it that we do again?

- Sugababes

Keep it on Your Shelf to Impress Your Friends

- Leonard Cohen

Statistically, It Had to Happen Soon

- Jack White & Dave Grohl

Look At Me! I'm Strange!
- Lady GaGa

08 December, 2009

Everything New is Old Again.... again

Tony Abbott’s announcement of his new shadow cabinet today proves more than I ever dared imagine just how much he wants to lead the party that used to be in government – specifically, the party that was turfed out the last time. If he really thinks this marks the change from a government in exile to being a true opposition, he’s half right. He is bringing back as much as he can of the Howard cabinet which really does make them an exiled government, but an opposition is all they will ever be with this front bench.

Climate change deniers (I refuse to call them sceptics – to be a sceptic, you have to have some evidence or lack of evidence on your side, not just say, “I don’t think so,” and deride those who accept the science) Nick Minchin and Barnaby Joyce have been given the portfolios of Resources and Energy and Finance respectively. This move is an unmistakable signal that the Abbott Liberal Party’s position on climate change is one that would make the Howard government look positively.... well, liberal. Former leader Malcolm Turnbull has already labelled Abbott’s position as “bullshit.”

And the Shadow Minister for Seniors is Bronwyn Bishop, who crashed and burned in the similar portfolio of Aged Care over the kerosene baths affair. Abbott says they are going to give the government the fright of its life. An unnamed Labor MP was quoted as saying, “Now I know how the Libs felt when we elected Mark Latham as leader!”

It’s always been claimed that there are no factions in the Liberal party and Tony Abbott repeated that claim today. That’s clearly bullshit too. There are just no official factions. Rumour is that many moderate Liberals are annoyed with this pull to the right. It suggests that if a spill were moved this week (and why not? They had two in as many weeks), Abbott could lose. It would only take one changed vote.

Of course, part of the opposition’s job is to provide an alternative and there’s no denying that this is an alternative. Continuing to smoke is an alternative to giving up too. What’s needed is a desirable alternative. Abbott’s opportunistic appeal to hard right elements in the party who think the Libs had gone wishy-washy is not going to win the party any votes that they wouldn’t have gotten anyway.

The Rules: Facts

FACT: Prefacing a statment with the word ‘Fact,’ does not automatically make it a fact.

05 December, 2009

Awwww

video

For some curious reason, baby magpies tend to remind me of Liam Gallagher.

And if anyone is wondering.... yes, these two posts together are a social experiment.

Surge in General

Obama’s direction on Afghanistan really shouldn’t surprise anyone. He spent twelve months on the campaign saying that the Afghanistan operations were badly under-resourced. And he’s playing the game they all play of listening to the generals. Taking advice from the generals is admirable of course, but there’s an old saying that when you’re holding a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Generals make a career out of planning military operations. It’s what they live for. McChrystal was hardly going to tell Obama that they had done all they can militarily and it’s now time to concentrate on economics and infrastructure, was he? Ask a teacher what they solution is, and he’ll say education. Ask an economist, and he’ll say tax cuts. Ask a soldier and he’ll say more troops. I’m not suggesting that more troops are not needed, just pointing out that everyone sees the situation through their own prism.

I know it’s embarrassingly fashionable to link to Andrew Sullivan but I think his analysis is pretty well spot on. The operation deserves one last chance at victory, however slim (given the experiences of every other military power that has ever tried to control Afghanistan) that victory might be. And an Obama administration at least has the credibility to try. If nothing else, they have the credibility of not having stuffed it up before. The Bush administration, with their fatal combination of arrogance, ignorance and wishful thinking, had been so wrong, so often and in so many ways on the handling of both Afghanistan and Iraq that even if they came up with a winning strategy, no sane person would trust them. If you engage a builder put an extension on your house and it falls down four times, are you going to believe him when he says he’s got it right this time? No, you give him the benefit of the doubt the first time, and after that you get another builder. If this new builder suggests the same thing as the previous guy wanted to do on his fifth attempt, that tells you there might just be something to it after all, and maybe this one has the nous to do it properly. Or it may be a lost cause. But Obama and his generals and their troops deserve the chance to succeed where Bush failed.

This will not be like the troop surge in Iraq. Bush supporters like to say that it worked, but the other flank of that surge strategy was to pay the insurgents to switch sides. Unless they intend to employ a similar strategy in Afghanistan, then it’s going to be a harder slog. And even then, nothing is going to change the fact that the US is an invading force and will never be seen as liberators.

Don’t believe me? Imagine you’re an American – or perhaps you don’t have to imagine. If you’re a mad leftie, imagine Bush is still in office, if you’re a mad rightie you can just imagine it’s today. You really hate the president and everything he stands for. But even so, how would you feel about a foreign power – let’s say, the United Arab Emirates – “liberating” you from that tyrant? They have a different culture, a different religion, a different language but at least they don’t make you pay tax. Do you feel liberated? Do you wave signs saying thank you? Of course not! The president may be a son of a bitch but he’s your son of a bitch and you fight your own battles thank you very much! Well, now you know the boat that Afghans and Iraqis are in – stuck between corrupt locals and an invading force that claims to be benevolent but obviously has their own interests at heart.
(and if you think the scenario I’ve suggested is too outlandish to contemplate, then for pity’s sake STFU about “tyranny” or get a real problem)

George W Bush had a pretty good retort for those who criticised him for his arrogant swagger. He said, “In Texas, we call that ‘walking.’”
If Obama were to dignify accusations of dithering with a response, he might say, “We call that ‘thinking things through so that we don’t make a complete balls-up of it like the last mob did.’”
He who hesitates has probably thought of something others didn’t.