Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Government for the nation not the marginal seat

Let's kill too ugly birds with one stone. The first ugly bird is the election of governments with a minority of the two party preferred vote. The second ugly bird is the way money is thrown at marginal seats, particularly at election time.

We want to preserve the essential electorate-based nature of the House of Representatives. This creates a house where Government usually has a workable majority. So the proposed solution has the following structure:

  • Most members are elected from single party seats;
  • A small number of additional members are selected (by single transferable vote as described below) to ensure that the balance in the parliament is determined by the will of the total electorate;
  • Minor parties don't get into the lower house this way because only parties that win 2 or more electorates outright then participate in the further distribution of votes to add extra members. If you want to see minor parties in the lower house, that is a separate issue, but probably most Australians don't.

Suppose that we have 140 electorates, but we have 150 total seats. To some extent this system will be run as if it is a single seat returning 150 candidates by single transferable vote. So a quota is 1/151 of the total vote.

  • However first each of the 140 electorates elects one candidate with half the vote in that electorate, which is approximately 1/280 of the total voters.
  • In the context of the single national electorate, votes from losing candidates (and votes from winning candidates beyond the 1/151 quota) are distributed to other winners in their party to get them up to a national quota.
  • If a party doesn't get enough transferred votes for all their winners to get a 1/151 quota then those extra winners get their votes from nowhere, just reducing the value of all other remaining votes.
  • That process also applies to independents in the (likely) event that they don't get a 1/151 quota in their only seat.
  • At this stage there are 140 of 150 quotas taken. So the remaining votes are distributed to create 10 more quotas using additional lists of candidates supplied by the parties. Parties which have not won two electorates just get any extra votes for that party transferred without consideration of whether they would have got more quotas.

Monday, August 6, 2007

75%-baked: Only Live Music

I have various half-baked ideas for making money, but I reckon this one is 75% baked. It would definitely attract a significant following if it got going. The problem will be how to make money out of the popularity. Perhaps sell it to google, like YouTube.

The day is fast approaching when all radio and video will be delivered over the Internet. You pick a radio station by clicking an icon on your PDA. As we see on YouTube and many other places, this opens things up to the amateur contributor.

Another trend we see is the return to live music. Why do we have shows like "Australian Idol"? Because the whole point of music production is for the performers to show off their natural talent and for the audience to evaluate the performers. Music produced by electronic trickery in studios is increasingly recognized as comparatively empty.

It is possible to stream live sound over the Internet today. Internode is leading the way in Australia: http://www.internode.on.net/radio/. Many of the network providers can do this very efficiently using multicast. So my idea is to start an internet radio station providing only live music. It would later be split into multiple stations providing different sorts of music.

Initially it would be all free with amateur sound engineers and performers not paid. Later some extra channels would be supported by advertising or require a subscription (or both), and those channels would pay production staff and performers, not to mention management. Initially expenses, including some payment to management, will attempt to be covered by subscribers who will be able to vote on which acts they prefer to hear.

The station announcement between performances is "This is OLM: Only Live Music. We don't believe that recorded music is real music, and now you don't need it because OLM streams live music, produced with analog devices, 24 hours a day. Recording OLM performances is not permitted and detracts from their intentionally transient and contemporary nature. This doesn't prohibit technical aspects of streamed radio transmission such as the necessary cache delay. If you miss something then encourage the performers to do OLM again. And become a paid up subscriber so that you can vote on which performers you want us to feature".

The assertion that only live music is real, is a marketing position. It is designed to annoy and make people talk. Participants don't have to agree with it.

The key to OLM is to broadcast performances from different time zones around the world. This can be as simple as a solo performer with a good quality microphone broadcasting from their own home. However it will be better to broadcast actual live performances from venues. That requires some sound engineering, though these days that can be just multiple microphones feeding into a computer running some sound software.

Obviously OLM needs lots of people around the world. The sort of things one needs to do to achieve this are:

  • Set up discussion forums for interested people: a wiki and a blog seem likely to be a good start.
  • Put information on the wiki pointing to anything that can be found out about how to broadcast music on the Internet.
  • Look for support from useful people. Simon Hackett the head of Internode has been involved in Internet multimedia for a long time and might well be interested -- I remember him demoing listening to California radio from Australia, including remote tuning using SNMP.
  • Communicate with groups where interested people might hang out (without spamming too much), to invite them to join it.
  • Start practicing broadcasting music, preferably as early as possible from different places around the world, to see how well it reaches.

My view is that if some major ISP owner was interested to be part of it then all the technical issues would be addressed. I also think that OLM would attract amateur sound people and musicians willing to work for no payment if the technical issues were sorted out.

2005/03/24: The Case for a Human Future

I attended a talk that referred to trends and extrapolated them to talk of people living much longer than before, and of intelligent robots that surpass our abilities.

Humans are the most amazing thing that has happened in this universe. David Barrow summed it up neatly in the title of his book: "The Universe that Discovered Itself". The idea that the human story should end and be replaced by a superhuman or nonhuman world is something that people are too willing to accept: even otherwise intelligent people.

The first point to make is that there is not a requirement for change to make way for progress. Humans are tool users. Humans with intellectual and communication tools provided by Information and Communication Technologies are not limited in what they can achieve (relative to computers or improved humans).

There is an idea in the populace that when computers pass a certain level of intelligence they will magically acquire motivation. This is not the case. Our motivation comes from our genes. Our genes have motivation but it is not the same as ours. In the simplest example: If I or my identical twin brother is going to drown, then my genes don't care which. Genes give us complex motivation in which the desire to live and the desire to reproduce are only the most trivial parts. But the fact that genes, even in the simplest bacteria or virus, display clear though unconscious motivation shows that motivation is unrelated to intelligence.

Sure we could give our little machines motivation. We might accidentally give them enough motivation to wipe us out. What we couldn't do is give them the sort of subtle motivation which genes supply that keep us striving to understand, to explore and to conquer the universe, while at the same time perpetuating ourselves and living fascinating lives that we turn into literature and other art. In fact I'm certain that any motivation that us junior gods could bestow on our creations would grind to a halt very soon after we became unable to guide it.

And losing the ability to lead is the great danger of this inhuman or partly human world. If people start living for ever then we will quickly lose the input of youth that keeps human society fresh. The replacement of humans with computers and robots in positions of any importance will lead even more quickly to the loss of humanity's spark.

If machines were given motivation that would make them independent of humans then that would be a terrible crime which would hold the seeds of our destruction. Any motivation less than that would be sufficiently weak as to be no motivation in the big scheme of things.

There is no choice to a human future. The hard bit is to understand what that means in a world where many people have ignorant plans to change humanity. Our present life has already acquired features which will drive evolution towards something which is not fully human.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The "Maximum Estate" tax

It would be better to tax wealth than income, but that is not easy. It would be better to get more tax from death duties, but that is not popular with voters. It would be particularly nice to raise more tax from criminals. I have a simple plan.

Tax payers have to specify to the tax office their Maximum Estate. When they die, if their estate is larger than their last declared Maximum Estate then that excess goes 100% as tax. So there is a strong incentive for those who want to leave money to set their declared Maximum Estate fairly high.

On the other side of the coin there will be a small tax, less than 1%, on the Maximum Estate value. This is effectively a wealth tax.

Even more importantly there will be a hefty tax on changes to Maximum Estate beyond income. So if your taxable income in a year is $100,000, but your Maximum Estate value goes up by $150,000 then the extra $50,000 that appeared from nowhere will be taxed at something like the maximum income tax rate.

Different people will make different decisions about where to set their Maximum Estate. Some will leave it at 0, effectively leaving all their money to the nation when they die. Others will pay as they go. Either way it will be a very progressive tax that will be effective against criminally acquired wealth.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

2005/03/15: I hate fake conservationists

Conservationists are too nice. They let all sorts of fake conservationists string along under the conservationist banner. This is leaving the voters confused.

Firstly: animal liberation and the protection of specific animals from human action, has nothing to do with conservation which is about the protection of species and ecosystems. Indeed animal protection is often at odds with sensible conservation. We don't cull koalas or fruit bats even when they are destroying endangered plants. We don't cull kangaroos but insist on letting them destroy their habitat and then starve to death. We don't allow kangaroo farming, so farmers are forced to continue with sheep and other things that destroy the Australian environment. We need to meet this sentimentality head on when it conflicts with the desire to manage the environment well. And we particularly need to denounce attempts by animal rights people to claim to be conservationists. The idea that the way to save animals is to not kill them is something that appeals to children and we need to forcefully say that habitat loss is the overwhelming cause of the loss of species, ecosystems and diversity. [Which is not to say that there is anything wrong with people pursuing animal welfare, I'm only complaining about those that claim that this activity is conservation.]

A second group think that conservation means conserving the view. So that people who don't want to see windmills on their bit of coast will try to claim to be conservationist.

The third group is opposed to modern life, and fearful of scientific and technological change. They are easily detected by their claim that primitive people are in tune with nature and never destroy their environment. How wrong they are! The greatest ecological disaster in Australian history was the destruction of the megafauna when Aborigines first arrived. Indeed it is impossible to understand ecological management in Australia unless you realise that we can't get back to the natural environment of 50,000 years ago. It is not the case that we can leave nature alone and it will return to a natural state. Instead without megafauna and Aboriginal burning we get fuel build up followed by ecologically disastrous fires.

A fourth group are anti-conservationists. They think that we should only adopt conservation policies when there is no risk to humans, and damn the environment. In particular they favour continuing to burn coal and build dams rather than moving to nuclear power. The environmental impact of blocking the natural flow of rivers and of pumping CO2 into the air is horrific. The environmental affect of nuclear power stations is to create a really effective nature reserve around them. An accident has no negative impact on wildlife. Chernobyl has allowed the native flora and fauna of Ukraine to return. Not that we'd embark on nuclear power if we expected accidents. There is every reason to believe that Australia at least would run such stations very well. And we can quite easily site them far from the madding crowd. And we have just as much uranium as coal. This is something we can do for the world.

The Greens are so heavily infiltrated with fake conservationists that I can't imagine them ever having genuinely environmentalist policies.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

2005/03/12: In favour of sign language

It has been known for many years that the time to learn languages is when very young. Three or four is the best time to start, but five or six is ok. If you learn a second language early then your brain develops general structures which make it much easier to later learn a third or forth. If, like most Australians, you only know one language then the brain hardwires itself for that language and it becomes impossible to become fluent in other languages later.

Teaching a language is the natural thing to do at pre-school and in the early years of school. Children of that age are all wired up and ready to learn languages. Teaching them other things, like mathematics, is a waste of time. Children who learn non-language subjects at that age don't do any better, all else being equal, than those that don't. But for languages it is the best, and to some extent the last, time in which to do it. The failure of education departments to act on this knowledge over the last twenty years is verging on dereliction of duty.

There is a clear cut choice for a second language that can be taught everywhere: Sign language.

Sign Language

The language of the deaf is a real language. It isn't a variant of English. It has its own grammar and structure, so it fills the role of a second language for children. And adopting it has a lot of important advantages:

  1. It will greatly facilitate the integration of deaf people into the wider community if everyone learns their language.
  2. And indeed it will provide a fulfilling job to many deaf people as teachers of sign language, either directly to small children or else to other teachers.
  3. Any of us may become deaf. Those who don't learn sign language early are never proficient.
  4. More commonly we all have laryngitis and other diseases that cause us to lose our voices at times. Having sign language makes a valuable backup.
  5. There are lots of situations where sign language is much more convenient than speech: in the library; in a noisy venue; at the theatre or music performance; when filming or hunting wildlife.

Perhaps the most interesting situation where sign language might be useful is in negotiations involving multiple people on each side. I can just imagine the Chinese putting barriers between the seating positions of visiting Australian trade negotiators so that they can't sign to each other under the table during the negotiations.

Sign language is a natural part of the human language armoury. It was famously used between the plains Indians in North America. It is almost certain that sign language preceded spoken language in the human story. This avoids the chicken-egg problem that you don't need a complex vocal system unless you have a complex language and you can't use a complex language without a complex vocal system. The fact that the brain is wired to allow language information to flow through other routes and not just our mouth and ears is the reason that we can read and write.


Currently we take pre-school and early school children who are all ready to learn languages, but not much else, and we do little to develop them. Let's teach them sign language. The kids of that age will love it and it will have all sorts of later benefits for the children themselves and for society.

Moving wealth into the future through money

Saving is good, but what does it mean? If in the future we will need some grain, then it is wise to save some. If in the future we will need something perishable then maybe we can save something non-perishable that we can swap for the perishable item at that time. We treat money as such a non-perishable item. This works in a small way, for individuals, but not for a whole society.

Suppose I save some money in a suitcase under the bed. That reduces the amount of money in circulation (by a small amount), thus making all the money that is in circulation more valuable (deflation). When I later put the money back into circulation it acquires its value from all the other money in circulation by making that other money fractionally less valuable (inflation). In this way an individual or a group can move wealth into the future through money. Society as a whole can't move wealth into the future through money. This is slightly confused by the fact that an individual country might be able to do it in the context of all other countries. However since there is no global economic control, or global currency, a country can only do it by putting itself at the mercy of some other country, as countries holding US dollars do today.

There is also a problem when too many individuals try to move wealth into the future. In so far as they try to hold money they cause deflation. However governments can't allow that, so more money is put in circulation. The trouble is that this leaves the potential to cause inflation in the hands of consumers, and the government has more trouble taking money out of circulation when inflation starts. The other way people try to move wealth into the future is by buying assets. This leads to bubbles when there is too much money chasing too few assets of genuine long term value.

Money has three roles: as a mechanism for efficient exchange of goods, as a unit of value, and, as discussed above, as a way of moving moving wealth into the future. The first two are related and inseparable. The third doesn't work and gets in the way of the other two, because stored money is always threatening to flood onto markets causing inflation and bubbles.

More on this another day.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Climate change: a view from the right

We have to thank the Green Left for energetically bringing the issue of Climate Change to our attention. But now that we are starting to understand the problem we need to develop an Economic Rationalist solution. The views of the Green Left on how to solve the problem are not just wrong, they are dangerously wrong.

The message from the Green Left is that we have to sacrifice and suffer. If we suffer enough from higher energy prices from renewable sources, and from reduced energy consumption then that will solve the problem. Suffering is necessary and sufficient, they say. Does this sound familiar? Sacrifice and suffering is what religious leaders have been prescribing to appease the gods from the beginning of humanity. It taps into an instinct to sacrifice for the good of the community. We are all good at pretending to do it, while hoping that others do more. However it is completely irrelevant to solving Climate Change because it is not necessary, and because the sort of sacrifices being proposed, for example by Al Gore at the end of "An Inconvenient Truth", are nowhere near sufficient.

The first mistake is to see the solution in terms of specific regulations, penalties and subsidies. That always creates lots of busy work for government without making real progress on the issue. What we need to do is impose a cost on activities we want to reduce. I'll call that a tax. We want to give money for activities we want to encourage. I'll call that a negative tax. The Carbon Tax Base (CTB) will be the estimated cheapest marginal cost of removing 1 tonne of carbon from the air. Some fraction of the CTB will be applied to fossil fuels as they come out of the ground, and to imported fossil fuel (unless there is an intergovernmental agreement with the source country). The same fraction of the CTB will be paid, as a negative tax, to activities that permanently remove carbon from the air. Turning grassland into forest might be the cheapest way to do this, but it is a one-off and is not renewable. There may be a renewable solution here if the wood is regularly harvested and treated so that it won't rot. There will be in between cases where there is payment for CO2 taken out of the atmosphere (as wood in this case), and the money is repaid as positive carbon tax as the CO2 is returned (by rotting).

This proposal opens up every option to solve the problem. Energy costs are increased, so people will favour activities which use less. Fossil fuel is made less attractive as an energy source relative to alternatives. And finally people can put their minds to ways to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and get rewarded by that (and the continuing burners of fossil fuel will have an advantage in doing this, since they will have a more concentrated stream of CO2 to work with).

Initially the tax will bring in more than is paid out to those removing CO2. Indeed the aim will be to take 20 years to reach equality. During this period there will be a surplus, but the aim will be for the carbon tax to be revenue neutral. The excess will be returned to the people in the form of a negative poll tax (in other words equally to everyone). This will be quite close to an equitable way of helping people handle the increased costs. It would be silly to return the money in a way that gave more to those who use more energy since that would just subtract from the effect of the carbon tax.

There is basically just one parameter which needs to be adjusted in the scheme: the product of the CTB and a fraction chosen for policy reasons. This would be set by an independant body, following the very successful model of interest rates. The legislation would set Australia's aim for CO2 levels in the atmosphere. The independant body would aim to hit a net rate of emission/removal which would aim to hit the legislated target in about 50 years if all other countries were cooperating. It would work up to that cruising rate over an initial 20 year period.

Carbon Trading is another market based approach to greenhouse emissions. It is a left wing bureaucrats idea of how to do it. It targets the emissions, which need not be fossil fuel derived. It should target the fossil fuel extraction because that all ends up as CO2 eventually, and it is easy to police. Existing schemes don't seem to distinguish between renewable extraction of CO2 and one-off actions like reafforestation (which then needs to be policed to see that it isn't undone). Still this is an international system and the best way for Australia to use it would be to act as a single entity, with our verified CO2 extraction (paid for as negative tax) attracting carbon trading credits for Australia as a whole. We could then use these to encourage other useful activity world wide. And of course we should push for a more sensible international system, and make reciprocal agreements with other countries that are carbon-taxing fossil fuel mining.

The Green Left would say that the aim of combatting climate change is to return the world and its climate to its natural state. This is a terrible idea. With 6 billion mouths to feed, and counting, we need to manage the climate and keep it at an optimal level. Nature is just as capable as humanity of messing up the climate.

If you look at a graph of the world's temperature over the last 100,000 years or so you'll see this little straight bit in the top right. That's 8000 years of stable warm wet climate. Before that it jiggles around all over the place, and nearly always much colder and much drier than it is now. Very unstable, very cold and very dry is the worlds natural state since the age of the glaciers started half a million years ago. It is more important to avoid a return to those normal conditions than it is to avoid global warming. Of course global warming is much more urgent.

There is a lot of misleading comment around associating "warm" with "dry" climate change. Naturally the warmer the ocean is, and the higher the sea level, the more water evaporates, and the more rain that falls eventually. That's why the world's climate is either cold and dry during ice ages, or it is warm and wet during interglacials like the one we are enjoying. The reason the warm-dry combination gets mentioned is that climate change is not uniform. A British study based on simulations claims global warming will make 2/3 of the world wetter and 1/3 drier. However accurate that is, there are reasonable general arguments as well as simulations to suggest that global warming will make the southern half of Australia drier. Outside Australia the concerns about drier conditions seem to be only based on particular simulations and seem to be taken more seriously than they should.

Another popular misconception is that there was this CO2 in the atmosphere, just sitting there at a particular level, then we added more. In fact CO2 moves into and out of the atmosphere at quite a high rate. So, the fact that the level of CO2 has remained quite stable over long periods means that the rates of.CO2 entering and leaving are the same. But it means more than that. The world settled into a stable equilibrium of atmospheric CO2. If the amount of CO2 increases, say from a volcanic erruption, then the processes taking CO2 out of the atmosphere also increase, and similarly any decrease encouraged the processes that put CO2 back. We can imagine the state of the world as a balling rolling on a plane that isn't flat. It will roll down hill, following the course that water would take. Eventually it comes to rest in a depression. Whichever way it is pushed it wants to roll back to the lowest point of the depression.

Continuing our analogy, suppose we give the ball a push in a direction that we might call "higher CO2". Eventually we might push it over the lip of our local depression and the ball might start rolling again looking for a new depression: a new equilibrium point. However there is no guarantee that it will keep rolling in that direction. It might go around and end up in the other direction from the way it was pushed. In other words, a push in the direction of greater warming might tip us into an ice age, though perhaps not as fast as in "The Day After Tomorrow". I've been assuming that the push back force is well behaved like gravity. It might not be and it might force the ball back towards the low point, but then overshoot. In that way it might find a much lower lip that it can easily get over and then keep heading towards the other stable equilibrium that we know exists that puts the world into an Ice Age.

Suppose we set our CO2 target at 350ppm. Perhaps in 40 years the CO2 level will start to fall rapidly. If we've set up a flexible mechanism then that mechanism will react to support the CO2 level. When the carbon tax goes negative then business might go back to those abandoned gas fields and make money just by venting methane.

This plan doesn't involve government telling everyone what to do, it just readjusts economic incentives in the same way that interest rate adjustments do. This plan doesn't involve handing control back to mother nature, instead it takes a necessary step to control her. This plan doesn't involve any necessary sacrifice, it is designed to come in sufficiently slowly that it can leverage ongoing economic growth. These three things might annoy Bob Brown, but that is just a subsidiary benefit. The main point is that we need to solve Climate Change, and only rational economic policies will do it. If we don't do it then the Left will be pleased to take the reins, causing economic mayhem, and failing to address the problem.

2005/03/11: Workflow user interface

2005/03/11: Workflow user interface

My current obsession is workflow, and particularly a workflow-oriented user interface to everything.

Once upon a time computers were expensive and people were (relatively) cheap. So the idea was that people would attend to the computer and keep feeding it. The modern progress bar continues that idea: "here's something to look at while you wait for the computer to finish something". Window systems, and underlying multiprocessing, mean that computers can do more than one thing at one. Instead of looking at the progress bar we go to another window. Now we don't know when the activity is finished except by coming back to it. So we have to remember all the things that we are trying to juggle and keep going back and checking them for progress. So we need a workflow user interface, and what do people use: they use e-mail. That's something they keep looking at and maybe it comes with a notification system. But it is a really bad workflow user interface.

A real workflow user interface lets us know what activities need user input, or want it, or would be willing to receive it. My conception is that activities are organized in a tree and the nodes change colour: green means that this activity can't proceed without input from this user; yellow means the user might push things along, but does not have primary responsibility to do so; orange to red means that the user can only do things that won't affect other players much. For example if the activity is a chess game then the tree node for that activity is green if it is your move and orange if not (since you could resign) and red if the game is over.

Now we don't need a progress bar: the node for that activity will be reddish until it goes back to waiting for us to input. More on this another day.

Wirelessly networked PDAs threaten to become ubiquitous combined with mobile phones. These can hardly afford a multiwindow UI. Also it will be hard for the user to look around for stuff needing attention. Also interaction activities are likely to be the main applications. So for various reasons my workflow user interface is likely to be a good answer.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Oh to be Canada: Why do nuclear waste storage

It must be nice to be Canada. They don't have to go along with the United States' military adventures like Vietnam and Iraq, except when right and World opinion are behind them, as in Korea and Afghanistan. Yet they know that the US can never let anything bad happen to Canada. Australia would love to be in that position. Well we can. More details below, but first some introductory facts.

Australia's proximity to the largest Muslim nation makes us nervous. This is undoubtedly irrational, but the feeling is a potent force in Australian politics. The response is to show slavish friendship to the Americans. The electorates support for our involvement in Iraq is typical. The fact that the war is a disaster doesn't matter. In fact in a funny way it helps. Our message to America is that we support you, right or wrong. However our slavishness is going to start to wear thin with the electorate as the government enacts the provisions of the amusingly named "Free Trade Agreement", like the recent Copyright act that will make nearly every Australian a criminal.

As a practical matter it is not clear that all our attempts to ingratiate ourselves with the Americans will be effective. The American electors have still never heard of us, except for those who think we have something to do with "The Sound of Music". Their political system nearly always picks a state Governor with no foreign policy expertise for President. The Presidency does not adapt to shifting opinion in the way that a parliamentary government does. So it is by no means certain that America will help us when we need them, particularly if America has other problems distracting it at the time.

Fear of our neighbors might be irrational, but one thing that worries me is the nuclear waste that is scattered around the world, often in geologically and politically unstable areas. Personally I would be more comfortable if it was skillfully processed, then buried in our sparsely populated and geologically and politically stable land. One form of processing that would make sense would be to use it in a Thorium reactor. This produces CO2-free energy, and at the same time it reduces the radioactivity of the waste to a two hundred year problem instead of thousands of years. Australia has huge reserves of Thorium.

Indeed I think that we shouldn't be shipping out Uranium (or Thorium) and washing our hands of the waste problem. We should take it back, for everyone's greater safety.

There are lots of reasons why storing nuclear waste is a natural economic activity for our technologically advanced and Uranium exporting nation. But there is a huge additional side benefit. Suddenly we are like Canada. We become a nation that America, and other advanced nations, can not afford to let fall into the hands of the bad guys. We no longer have to follow America into every quagmire. We no longer have to submit to their latest schemes to protect their wonderful Intellectual Property from the depredations of Australian consumers.

This is a plan than can be sold to the Australian voters. It will make the World safer if we can get all that nuclear waste stored in deep and stable granite. And by making the Australian voters feel safer, we can turn Australia into a force for peace, as Canada has long been.

2005/03/10: HIV and male circumcision

Doctors are conscious of the importance of ethics, but many of them have no feel for the subject. A month or so ago The Age ran a story about a Professor Short who was recommending that male babies be circumcised for health: circumcised males are much less likely to get HIV from an infected partner. I wrote the following response, but never got around to sending it:

The discovery that uncircumcised males are more likely to get HIV led to an investigation of the role of the foreskin. It was found that it contained cells that were designed to interact with their environment. There can be no doubt that these cells are there because they are beneficial in some way. Even if you don't agree with that: there is no urgency to circumcise babies, because they won't commence sexual activity for many years. So why is Prof Short explicitly recommending that babies be circumcised? The whole point is to intentionally deprive those children of their right to give informed consent to the operation. This is disgraceful.

Of course religious Australians are entitled to circumcise their children for religious reasons. Secular Australians must be allowed to discuss secular ethics without religious Australians taking offence.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Integration of Muslim communities in the West

Women drive cultural conflict, as we particularly see with Muslim radicalization in Western countries. Indeed women are amazingly keen to risk male lives. I guess their genes know that there will never be a shortage of sperm, and the less aggressive males there are around the safer their children are. Anyway here's something I wrote about that last year, and about how to achieve cultural harmony in the West:

Muslim culture is part of the normal spectrum of human cultures. It is not long ago that Western culture severely limited the rights and opportunities of women. That world is perfectly described by Jane Austen, one of our greatest writers. Towards the end of "Pride and Prejudice", Mrs Bennett says of her naughty but lucky daughter and her new no-good son-in-law: "We must have them to dinner". Mr Bennett is heard to say "They will never enter this house". Somehow we are not surprised to see the disreputable pair arriving for dinner. Indeed in nearly all the relationships portrayed in the book, the women strive and succeed in getting their way with their men. The exception is Jane and Mr Bingham, and that relationship seems completely implausible: who can believe a man really falling for someone who makes no attempt to stand up for herself in the relationship. We believe attraction, and lust, but we don't believe he can fall in love.

How much influence do women have on male behaviour? We know from the statistics that delinquent boys turn moderately responsible when they get a steady girlfriend. When it was suggested to Winston Churchill that women would rule the world in 2050, he replied "Still?". However a nearly universal aspect of human behaviour is that women defer to men in public. If a woman shows dominance over her husband in public, it reduces his status, and that is unlikely to be in the interests of her family. So Western culture is familiar with the idea of the woman going along with her husband in public, then telling him off in private. It is one of those incongruities that comedians love to exploit.

If women are so powerful within relationships, then why do they let themselves get into positions of limited rights, as in Jane Austen's day, and with Muslim women today. We really need to understand this in the modern Western world where young Muslim women, raised in the West, are taking to scarves and veils that their mothers had escaped. The answer is that it is a mistake to see men and women as separate groups that are in conflict for power and status. Rather it is groups of men partnered with women who are competing with other such groups of men and women together. We can hardly imagine the importance of this competition in our wealthy society, but historically most societies have lived close to the edge and power and status greatly increased the chances of survival and reproduction.

When we look at it that way, we can see that women will not necessarily wish to have the cultural dial set to a point where women have independence and public power and status based on merit. Different settings favour different groups. How much influence do women have in setting this dial? My opinion, and the argument of this document, is that women are actually by far the main influence in setting the cultural dial. When there was resistance to votes for women, this resistance included women. When resistance from women stopped then resistance from men faded away. Similarly we see, and are shocked to see, in the modern world that women are often involved in supporting activities that attack the rights of women: genital mutilation, honour killings, wife killings. Terrorism would not be possible without at least passive female support. Men would not do this if it meant coming home to the disapproval of mothers, sisters and wives.

If we can find a way to get into a dialog with Muslim women in Australia, then there are two things I would say to them in the form of a deal, discussed below. Others may have other ideas. Certainly we need to keep the conversation reasonably simple. One way to organize it would be to invite women to meetings which would elect representatives to meet with the governments representatives (female) and then report back. A way of compensating the women for their time would be to give them a voucher at the first meeting that would be redeemable for $100 at the 2nd.

The first thing the government needs to say to Muslim women is this: In the important business and government organizations in Australia, women have equal rights. If Muslim sons and husbands go to work in these important organizations, and we want them to, then they'll always be working with women and sometimes they will have women bosses, and women subordinates. This equality of women at work is an absolutely non-negotiable part of Australian life. We would eventually like Muslim women to actually take part when they are comfortable doing so. More immediately, and the first part of this proposed deal, we want Muslim women at home to encourage their men to get a good education and join these important organizations and accept the environment of equality there.

The other half of the proposed deal concerns politeness from the rest of Australian society to the Muslim people. I try to explain to my 3 year old grandson the difference between "bad" and "rude". You can be bad even when you are all by yourself. Rudeness is something you do, like saying a rude word, that is upsetting to other people. We vary what we say and do depending on who is around. To allow and encourage Muslim Australians to participate more in wider society we all need to avoid behaviour which Muslim people will perceive as rude. There are limited situations where the government can directly change this, such as broadcast TV and what is displayed on the public street. The main part of this offer from the government to Muslim people is to advertise to make people aware of the need for more modest behaviour in public and modest attire, particularly at work. The place for normal Australian vulgarity is at home, and in places where Muslim people will know not to go, such as pubs.

So that is the proposed offer. We want Muslim Australians to join in the major activities of Australian life, accepting the non-negotiable fact of female equality in those environments. In exchange the government will do all it can, without infringing civil liberties, to avoid activities which are rudely insensitive to Muslim people.

This is a small step. Others are needed. I support the call to have only government primary schools -- compulsory, very well resourced, and with thorough mixing, using bussing if necessary. Also, the more ways the government can find to give resources directly to women, such as the baby bonus, the better. Maybe somebody will do a movie of "Pride and Prejudice" set in the Muslim community in Australia, to remind us how close we are.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

2005/03/08: Lack of trust in official health advice

In the Age (theage.com.au) a nutritionist gets stuck into people like me who are trying a gluten free diet without having probes inserted and biopsies taken. It claims that only people with full celiac disease should avoid gluten.

Why don't we trust these official pronouncements on diet? We just suspect that they are working for segments of the food industry. Gluten is associated with other health problems, particularly autism.

There are plenty of other cases. There is a compelling case that the western diet is magnesium deficient. And there is the amazing suppression of the A1/A2 milk story. Here is an extract from the NZ Food Safety Authority's study:

The best study was the most recent one which had a better design with blinded assessments where possible and a random allocation to diet or no diet. The majority of the measurements showed significant improvements on the diet (casein-free, gluten-free).

4.4 Summary and implications

The available evidence is suggestive of a role of reducing the casein and gluten in the diets of people with autism to improve the autistic behaviours and overall functioning of the individual. Further research is needed. The evidence is not strong enough for clear dietary recommendations to be made for people with autism and schizophrenia.

You'd think that governments would spring into action to evaluate the health risks of milk and whether it is particularly A1 milk that causes problems. But no: silence has descended over the whole matter and A2corporation has been beaten up in the courts to stop "false claims".

It is hard to think what could be done to restore my faith in nutritionists. Robust public debate without law suits. Funding of serious trials. Extricating nutritionists from the grip of the food industry. These would certainly help.

P.S.2003/03/09: Another example of failure to act where there was good cause for concern was the issue of honey with toxins from Patterson's Curse (aka Salvation Jane). The issue of the need for more sun exposure (with lack of sun exposure strongly implicated in various problems including osteoporosis and cancer) is another where people have to find out for themselves: official sources are silent. For most health issues you have to find out for yourself and weigh the evidence yourself without trustworthy guidance. It is then really stupid for the people who should be providing sound guidance to criticise us if we get it wrong by being overcautious.

Iraq and oil

The fact that the Iraq war is about oil is not news to many people. Nearly everyone, supporter and opponent, has known this from the beginning. All the other explanations have been provided with a metaphorical wink and a nudge. The practical economic purpose of the war has been the reason why there has been public support, even as casualties have mounted. The war is more about being well placed to protect Saudi oil, without having troops on holy Arabian soil, than it is about Iraqi oil.

So why did Howard (delicately) and Nelson (indelicately) have to say it? The answer lies in the Liberal party's parlous electoral position. Maybe 90% of the electorate already knew, but the government feels it has to reach that other 10% and tell them that the whole thing has some practical purpose. Of course their hasty retreat shows that they are well aware of their dubious ethical position, and that is what this post is about.

My grump for the day is with the journalists. When Nelson said "oil security", the question that needed to be asked was: "Do you mean helping the legitimate owners of the oil secure it against 3rd parties, or are you talking about securing it for our use against the legitimate owners?" Of course we all know that the latter is the case, but he would have been forced to respond with the former. But at least once he'd responded we can ask him who the legitimate owners of Saudi oil are: the princes who put the money in Swiss bank accounts, or the people who currently get the crumbs.

Which brings me to the biggest mistake of the Iraq war. The effect of preventing the Baath party and other opponents of the Americans from standing in the election was that the election had no legitimacy, particularly in the eyes of those opponents. If the Baath party, and even Saddam himself and al Qaeda, had been allowed to stand then they would have been roundly trounced, and the government would have had legitimacy, and everything would have worked out much better. As it is the insurgents can reasonably choose to ignore the election, assert that the government has no legitimacy to request American military presence in the country, assert that the current government are Quislings, and claim the normal human right to resist foreign occupation. And isn't it incredible that the Americans, whose country was founded on that right, completely fail to perceive its possible applicability here.