Saturday, December 31, 2011

Obligatory top-10 tech predictions for 2012

I think there's some rule that if you're involved in technology, you have to predict stuff for the next year.

It beats me why, because everyone always seems to get them wrong - maybe the tech press wants a piece the kudos given to economists for making predictions which inevitably turn out to be incorrect.

Anyhow here's mine:

  1. Apple will release another iThingy. Hipsters will buy it, regardless of the fact that it's only an incremental release on the previous iThingy. It's times like this I wish I had a Newton - so I could say: "I was using tablets before they were cool. Or even worked properly".
  2. Android will continue to inexplicably gain market share, despite still not being able to crack the lucrative hipster market. Apple will continue to sue any android devices that look like they might - and lose. Hipsters will continue to prefer iThingys.
  3. Windows Phone will continue to languish mainly because it's about as un-hipster as you can get.
  4. Google Plus will continue to grow despite no-one actually admitting to using it. The tech pundits will continue to pronounce its failure until the first mainstream media outlet proclaims it as the new tool of choice for cyberbullying/cyberstalking/farmville and demand "something be done about it". After this, Google Plus will be a real alternative to Facebook.
  5. Facebook growth will continue to slow. Pundits will continue to proclaim the death of Facebook. Facebook will still have eleventy billion members.
  6. Diaspora will continue to be cool despite no-one actually admitting to using it, or indeed knowing what it is. 
  7. Twitter will continue to grow in proportion to those that complain about it.
  8. Rightholders will continue to push for more draconian copyright laws. Consumers will get better at using encryption.
  9. The State will continue to try to crack down on <insert internet evil here> by proposing even more draconian laws. Citizens will get better at using encryption.
  10. 2012 will be the year of the Linux desktop :)
There you have it - 2012, the year that tech will continue doing pretty much what it's done since 2006.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Sceptics and Ideologues

Scientific scepticism (or rational scepticism) is the practice of questioning or doubting the veracity of conclusions that lack empirical evidence or rely on non-reproducable experimentation. For example, the Berkely Earth Project set out to test climatologists research:
"Existing data used to show global warming have met with much criticism. The Berkeley Earth project attempts to resolve current criticism of the former temperature analyses by making available an open record to enable rapid response to further criticism and suggestions. Our results include our best estimate for the global temperature change and our estimates of the uncertainties in the record."
-From Berkeley Earth Project FAQ
The project took a sceptical approach to the earth temperature measurement to test some of the assertions made against climatologists. This independent analysis of both the data used by the IPCC and the arguments put by critics of climate change is an example of a sceptical, scientific method of analysis.

In contrast, an ideologue is a partisan advocate of a particular position or theory - for example [Emphasis mine]:
"Climate change sceptic Ian Plimer's book "How to Get Expelled from School: A Guide to Climate Change for Pupils, Parents and Punters" arms children with 101 questions to challenge their teachers...
The 250-page book includes a list of questions intended to embarrass poorly prepared teachers."

Plimer and his denialist friends are very fond of using the title of "sceptic" because the term lends them some sort of scientific credibility. However, Plimer is not a sceptic, he is an ideologue and his book is pure ideology.

It is little surprise that he got one of Australia's most ideologically-driven leaders to launch it.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Of pizza and the privatisation of public policy

Pizza has been declared a vegetable.

The United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) proposed food standards were undermined by a congressional spending bill that enabled pizza to be counted as a vegetable. The bill was the result of lobbying by the frozen food industry to ensure that pizza and chips would still be available for school lunches.

In addition the bill will:
  • Block the Agriculture Department from limiting starchy vegetables, including corn and peas, to two servings a week. The rule was intended to cut down on french fries, which many schools serve daily.
  • Allow USDA to count two tablespoons of tomato paste as a vegetable - which allows pizza to be counted as a serve of vegetables. Federally subsidized lunches must have a certain number of vegetables to be served.
The intervention and lobbying by the fast-food industry to undermine the science-based public policy making of the USDA is yet another example of the increasing trend to privatise public policy making.

Interest groups and lobbyists have disproportionate sway over lawmaking, and in some cases have been able to  get lawmakers to completely abrogate their responsibility to legislate in areas of public policy. So much so that areas that were once the purview of government are now almost purely regulated and enforced by private interests.

This is particularly the case in intellectual property (IP) policy, where industry lobby groups have monopolised the public debate so that they virtually write the legislation for lawmakers to pass.

The recent "Stop Online Piracy" (SOPA) bill is one such example. The bill, if made into law, would give content publishers unprecedented powers to censor and control the publication of online content - making the content  publishers ultimate arbiters of what can be published on the internet. Through laws such as these, Governments have bestowed arbitrary quasi-judicial powers upon powerful interests, removing requirements for due process, natural justice or evidentiary rules - thus shirking their responsibilities to legislate public policy or protect the public interest.

The powers that the bill confers have been likened to the powers that the Chinese government executes over internet content through the "Great Firewall" albeit that the Western version is executed by private, rather than government interests. However, like the Chinese Firewall, the public can not dismantle this policy by excercising their democratic powers - the interests of this private plutocracy are just as dictatorial and totalitatarian as the Chinese Government.

In Australia too, the government has abrogated its responsibility to the public on IP policy by signing up to secretly negotiated "free-trade" treaties such as the Trans-pacific partnership.  The government is also refusing to take a leadership role in regulating IP infringement on the internet - preferring to hand that process over to vested interests in the ISP and content publishing industries rather than legislating in such a way that provides a balance between industry interests and the public interest.

The pervasiveness of the ideology that advocates that public policy is best executed by private interests relegates lawmaking to mere administration and democratic power to tinkering around the edges of issues. 

This abrogation of public policy making by lawmakers has not only had a chilling effect on the rights and freedoms of people, but it has also had serious effects on the world economy (global financial crisis), environment (climate change) and public health and wellbeing (health policy). However, lawmakers are satisfied to leave these important issues up to private interests instead of providing political leadership in the public interest and when a government does try to allow its citizenry to have a say, it is loudly shouted down and decried by those powerful interests to which an appeal to democracy would disadvantage the most.

Various governments have handed over some of the most important areas of public policy to powerful private interests to varying degrees. The economy, the environment, public health and culture have all been privatised to varying extents.

The virtual privatisation of these areas of public policy has collectively given society the global financial crisis by handing the economy to bankers, global warming by acquiescing to industrialist interests, a global obesity epidemic by pandering to the fast-food industry, lack of access to drugs in developing countries by granting broad patents to pharmaceutical companies and limitations on free speech and  human creativity by the over-regulation of IP.

And as we complain about our politicians tinkering around the edges of what was democracy, at least we can drown ourselves in the vacuity of culture that is left to us by the plutocrats and reach for another slice of pizza.

Well, at least it's a vegetable.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Communications Alliance proposal: a kinder, gentler 3-strikes

The Communications Alliance has released its proposal for dealing with rightsholders' complaints about ISP's customers engaging in alleged copyright infringements over their networks. The basic structure of the proposal is to provide rightsholders and ISPs a clear way of dealing with allegations of copyright infringements. However, in effect it is another variation of a graduated response system, albeit a kinder, gentler three-strikes.
The key features of the model include:
  • An independent panel for the assessment of alleged infringement and appeals;
  • A system for accrediting rightsholders (including the systems they use for detecting alleged infringements);
  • A system of notices with an emphasis on compliance and education (including specified time frames for alleged infringers to respond or amend their behaviour);
  • A "reset period" when further infringement has not occurred for a specified timeframe;
  • A system of discovery of an alleged infringer's details with a view to private legal enforcement by rightsholders (where compliance has not occurred); and
  • A funding model
This proposal broadly reflects the comments of Emmet, J in Roadshow Films Pty Limited v iiNet Limited[2011] FCAFC 23 and the proposal put forward by iiNet [PDF] in the wake of the case.

Considering that the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft (AFACT) rejected this proposal and have appealed to the High Court (HCA), it is unsurprising that rightsholders have rejected this model, instead continuing to push for models that curtail alleged infringer's right to the presumption of innocence and due process.

In addition to the possibility of a HCA win, rightsholders are also relying on a legislative response from the government who have indicated that they would prefer to hand that process over to vested interests in the ISP and content publishing industries rather than legislating in such a way that provides a balance between industry interests and the public interest.

In the current litigious environment, the Communications Alliance proposal is a relatively balanced approach to the issues that AFACT identified in its complaint while maintaining the interests of ISPs.

Fundamentally, the proposal does not address the issue of the over-regulation of copyright that has created the problem in the first place. As the Communications Alliance itself states:
"Australian consumers' ability to legally access this content in a timely and affordable manner does, however, vary significantly from sector to sector (eg; release of TV programs and movies in Australia can lag months behind US releases). This difficulty, combined with a proliferation of access technologies, such as file-sharing software, has reportedly seen a growth in the frequency of unauthorised access to online content and therefore copyright infringement."
With vested interests controlling government policy on copyright regulation (particularly through international treaties such as the Trans-pacific partnership), it is understandable that rightsholders would refuse to accept that their own actions contribute to online infringement. It is also not surprising that they would continue to push for unbalanced anti-consumer laws to maintain their business models.

To their credit, at least ISPs have made an attempt to balance some of the concerns that have been raised about graduated response systems. However, this proposal has been developed through the prism of ISP interests to avoid being held liable for infringement. The model itself is largely a reflection of the comments of a Federal Court judge ruling on a law that successive governments have largely allowed to be influenced by the interests that are advantaged by those laws.

It is the government's responsibility to legislate to balance the interests of all stakeholders. However, its irresponsible abrogation of its responsibilities to vested interests has resulted in the litigious environment that regularly ignores the interests of the citizens that the government is supposed to represent.

It is time that the market failure that has been created by the over-regulation of intellectual property is re-examined through the prism of efficient and effective regulation. This regulatory analysis ought balance the rights of rightsholders, ISPs and citizens to encourage a dynamic market sparking the innovation that the protection of intellectual property was supposed to achieve in the first place.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The 1% strikes back: QANTAS holds the economy to ransom

Last night, Fair Work Australia (FWA) ruled to terminate all industrial action in the QANTAS dispute. Undoubtedly there will be much written blaming the unions for this industrial chaos, but FWA makes it clear that it was the threatened action by QANTAS that was the deciding factor in terminating the action.

The issue arose because of an application by the Federal Government under s424 of the Fair Work Act (the Act). Section 424(1) states:

    424 FWA must suspend or terminate protected industrial action—endangering life etc. Suspension or termination of protected industrial action
  1. FWA must make an order suspending or terminating protected industrial action for a proposed enterprise agreement that:
    1. is being engaged in; or
    2. is threatened, impending or probable; if FWA is satisfied that the protected industrial action has threatened, is threatening, or would threaten:
    3. to endanger the life, the personal safety or health, or the welfare, of the population or of part of it; or
    4. to cause significant damage to the Australian economy or an important part of it.”
FWA ruled that the criteria had been met under s424, particularly 424(1)(d) with respect to the aviation, tourism and associated industries.

However, it was not the protected action taken by unions that fulfilled the criteria but the threatened industrial action by QANTAS.

At [10], FWA ruled (emphasis mine):
"It is unlikely that the protected industrial action taken by the three unions, even taken together, is threatening to cause significant damage to the tourism and air transport industries. The response industrial action of which Qantas has given notice, if taken, threatens to cause significant damage to the tourism and air transport industries and indirectly to industry generally because of the effect on consumers of air passenger and cargo services."
In its ruling on making the order to terminate, rather than suspend protected industrial action, FWA further referenced the uncertainty cause by the employer strike:

At [15] (emphasis mine):
"...Suspension is necessarily temporary - it leaves open the possibility there may be a further lock out with its attendant risks for the relevant part of the economy. That is, a risk the situation we are now dealing with will recur."
In other words QANTAS' threats to the wider economy were the deciding factor in this order, not the union action.

The right to strike has been curtailed to such an extent that it is almost impossible for employees to withdraw their labour to obtain fair working conditions such as the 8-hour day, sick leave, holiday pay, maternity leave and many other conditions that we now take for granted. The justification for this curtailment of labour to take action has always been that industrial action by labour can have seriously detrimental effects on the economy.

The message from this, is that the 1% - the corporations- has unfettered power and is prepared to use it regardless of the detrimental effects to the economy or the country. The almost unfettered right to strike by capital, has held the Australian economy to ransom. FWA has made it clear that it was QANTAS' actions that were the threat, not the union that threatened the economy. The economy cannot be  held to ransom by the industrial action of capital, just as it cannot be held to ransom by labour.

It is time the the Government governs for the 99%  and curtails the rights of capital to strike as they have curtailed the rights of labour.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

QANTAS' potentially unlawful action: a brief analysis

Today, QANTAS has decided to ground all of its fleet, both domestic and international, in response to the continuing industrial dispute between QANTAS and unions.  In response the Government has intervened by applying to Fair Work Australia (FWA) to suspend all industrial action (both union and QANTAS) under s424 of the Fair Work Act - FWA will be hearing the matter of suspending action tonight.

Outside of this initial action in FWA, there are other issues arising from QANTAS' actions that may be scrutinised in further subsequent actions in FWA, some of which could find QANTAS in breach of the Act.

There are a few ways that this dispute could play out and QANTAS may actually be significantly worse off by taking this action. However, much of this law is yet to be tested and it is difficult to predict how it will turn out - particularly in regard to the action that QANTAS has taken.

Industrial action, which includes employer response action, is only protected if it meets the criteria in Part 3, Division 2 of the Act. Employer response action (such as lock-outs) is governed by s411 of the Act.

s411 states:

Employer response action for a proposed enterprise agreement means industrial action that:
  1. is organised or engaged in as a response to industrial action by:
    1. a bargaining representative of an employee who will be covered by the agreement; or
    2. an employee who will be covered by the agreement; and
  2. is organised or engaged in by an employer that will be covered by the agreement against one or more employees that will be covered by the agreement; and
  3. meets the common requirements set out in Subdivision B.
The action is indeed in response to industrial action by those  classes of people in s411(a)(i) and s411(a)(ii), however it is much broader than that with the potential to affect a much broader class of employees. The breadth of this action may not reasonably be seen to be action only in response to industrial action in 411(a) - if the action is too broad, it could be that the action is unprotected.

The "Common Requirements" referred to in s411(c) are defined in s414 of the Act. These too, may have been contravened by QANTAS.

S414(5) gives the notice requirements for employer response action:

Before an employer engages in employer response action for a proposed enterprise agreement, the employer must:
  1. give written notice of the action to each bargaining representative of an employee who will be covered by the agreement; and
  2. take all reasonable steps to notify the employees who will be covered by the agreement of the action.
Considering the extremely sudden nature of the lock out, it appears that the notice requirements in s414(5)(i) may not have been met (the AWU has claimed that they had no notice). It  also appears unlikely that the notice requirements in s414(5)(ii) would have been met either. If these notice requirements have not been met then QANTAS' action in grounding its entire fleet, would be unprotected.

Taking unprotected industrial action may make QANTAS liable for fines or civil action. Tests of these sections will undoubtedly require examination by higher courts than FWA, potentially even up to the High Court. Whatever the result, it is likely to change the industrial relations landscape in Australia by significantly curtailing or expanding an employer's ability to take industrial action against its own employees.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The procedural fairness of unfair dismissal

There has been considerable agitation by previous Howard Government Ministers to re-animate the corpse of WorkChoices with calls for the Liberal Party to consider further changes to the industrial relations system.  The current shadow minister for Industrial Relations, Senator Eric Abetz was quick to hose down the potential restoration of WorkChoices, however, he could not help but throw in the usual Liberal Party lines attacking the current Fair Work system. In particular Sen. Abetz alluded to a "burgeoning industry" of "go-away money" to settle unfair dismissal claims.

Unfair dismissal has been a particular focus of the Coalition, often stating that is is a brake on employment, despite evidence to the contrary. It is worthwhile to examine the Fair Work regime of unfair dismissal to see just how 'unfair' unfair dismissal actually is to the employer.

A person is protected from unfair dismissal if they have been employed for the minimum employment period (between six months and one year) and if they are covered by a modern award, enterprise agreement and are under the high-income threshold.

Unfair dismmissal comprises of the following elements:

(a) the person has been dismissed; and

(b) the dismissal was harsh, unjust or unreasonable; and

(c) the dismissal was not consistent with the Small Business Fair Dismissal Code; and

(d) the dismissal was not a case of genuine redundancy.

So, in the case of a small business, there is a simple way to avoid any claim, and one would imagine that if a larger business followed the Code and employee would have difficulty proving that the dismissal was unfair, unjust or unreasonable.

The fair dismissal code merely applies the principles of procedural fairness to dismissal situations. The principles of procedural fairness require that a person has a fair hearing, free from bias, a decision based on evidence and an ability for the person affected to respond.

So in the industrial context, a person who is to be dismissed should be dismissed on the basis of evidence and also allow a person who is affected by a decision to know the accusation against them and to respond.

At its most basic, the code requires that an employer makes the employee aware that there is a problem with their performance and give them a chance to respond an rectify the problem. It does not protect an employee who has committed serious misconduct such as theft, fraud or occupational health and safety breaches.

The ability of an employee to have the chance to be informed of and respond to any identified performance problems is consistent with the principles of procedural fairness, so it is not unreasonable to apply this administrative burden on business.

So one must question where this burgeoning industry of "go-away" money is coming from.

Firstly, it is likely that this "industry" is being fed by small businesses not following the code, preferring to summarily dismiss under-performing or disliked employees due to a disconnect between the employers perceptions of serious misconduct and those that are actually proscribed by the law.

Secondly,  it is likely that employers and employees are coming to a settlement outside of the remedies imposed by Fair Work Australia (FWA) rulings because the most frequent remedy for unfair dismissal is that of reinstatement rather than compensation (except where the relationship has soured to such an extent that it is impractical). If this is the case, then the employers themselves are choosing to "pay out" employees (something which they probably could have done before going down the dismissal route). This is not imposed by the Fair Work regime, it is created by employers who have not dismissed employees correctly.

Ultimately it is up to businesses to follow the law, and considering that the law only incorporates the principles of procedural fairness and natural justice, it is hardly onerous. Furthermore this only really relates to summary  dismissal, there is nothing that prevents an employer from dismissing an employee so long as the necessary notice is given (or pay in lieu of notice) and entitlements are paid out.

What businesses are really after is the ability to avoid their responsibilities for notice and entitlements as they do not see these as part of the total pay package to which employees are entitled - putting it under the guise of not being able to sack under-performing employees.

The media too, is rife with stories of seemingly outrageous conduct by employees successfully being appealed to Fair Work Australia. However, when one actually looks past the media reporting to the actual facts of the case, it is often the employer who has been unfair, unjust or unreasonable or merely has not provided evidence.

It is not an unreasonable burden on business that they treat their employees fairly, nor is it unreasonable to expect them to follow the law. What is unreasonable is that businesses expect that the law ought to be changed to allow them to sack at will for whatever reason and avoid paying entitlements - all under the guise of 'flexibility'.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Perspectives on the death penalty

There has been justifiable outrage today at the state sanctioned killing of Troy Davis by the State of Georgia, particularly surrounding the strength of the case against him. People have been rightly outraged about the fact that a potentially innocent man has been put to death. There were significant questions surrounding the reliability of evidence (and how that evidence was gathered) that was adduced during trial including the lack of a murder weapon and the over-reliance on eyewitness testimony - some of which was recanted by those witnesses.

I want to juxtaposition this case with another - that of Lawrence Brewer. Lawrence Brewer was a white-supremacist  who was convicted of killing James Byrd Jr. by tying him to the back of his pickup and dragging him along an asphalt road. According to forensic evidence Byrd remained alive for some time during the dragging and was only finally killed when he hit a culvert which severed his arm and head. Police found 75 places along the road that contained Byrd's remains.

Brewer and his accomplices continued to drag Byrd's torso for another mile or so before dumping his body.

At trial, significant evidence was adduced that proved beyond reasonable doubt that Brewer and his accomplices were guilty. Brewer and one of his accomplices were sentenced to death (another accomplice was given life in prison). During his stay in gaol, Brewer never showed any remorse and even said that "he'd do it all again". Brewer was killed by the State on the same day as Troy Davis.

If you are against the death penalty you must accept that the outcome of Brewer's case is as much a tragedy as Davis', even though the differences in how we may view the guilt or innocence or moral culpability of each are stark. In both of these cases, regardless of the action, evidence, guilt or innocence; the outcome, that of State sanctioned killing, is wrong because it deprives us collectively of our humanity.

"A Hanging", an essay by George Orwell (poignantly published on the ABC's Drum today) captures the inhumanity of execution. It is this inhumanity that we must remember, even when confronted with the callous viciousness of Brewer's acts.

"It was about forty yards to the gallows. I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner marching in front of me. He walked clumsily with his bound arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never straightens his knees. At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working -- bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming -- all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned -- reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone--one mind less, one world less."
Regardless of the actions of a person, they are still just that: a person. No different from you or I in their personhood.

The moral value of a person derives from their personhood, the fact that they are a person, not just a collective set of moral actions1. It is why we rightly sanction those that try to use a victim's actions (whether they are immoral or even illegal) as an excuse for crimes against their person.

It is why we legally recognise that the body is not just mere property and has value above its economic worth - because the body is an intrinsic part of what makes us a person. To treat a person as an object that can be extinguished by the State diminishes the State's value of all people.

The execution of a person by what should be an extension of our collective humanity, the justice system, is a great wrong that diminishes us all. All persons have a moral value, it is why we view the interference with the person as a great moral (and legal)  wrong and why we should reject the death penalty as a barbaric penalty discarded to unenlightened times.

And we should reject the death penalty's effect on our own collective humanity, diminishing us and bringing us down collectively to the level of those which we seek to sanction. Regardless of the actions of the person, we must recognise each of us as a person. We are all part of humanity and we should rally against its diminution - the death penalty undermines our humanity in this way. The famous lines from poet John Donne in 1624 articulate it well:

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the SeaEurope is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

1 I understand that there are utilitarian arguments that refute the idea of intrinsic moral value as the utilitarian looks at the consequences of actions for their utility. However, many utilitarians are also against the death penalty because the general consequences to society reduce overall utility - its an argument and discussion for another article.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Parliament is not a court: abusing its privilege does not lead to just outcomes

Parliamentary privilege is one of the more powerful rights bestowed upon our parliament, and, unfortunately it is often abused. As an absolute defence against defamation (and other actions) it is a powerful tool that can be used by parliament to discuss issues of significant public importance without the fear of legal action against parliamentarians. However, its abuse by parliamentarians can lead to gross injustices and even undermine and damage the processes of the justice system.

Senator Xenophon's recent naming of a Catholic priest  in parliament for alleged sex crimes is one such abuse. The allegations are yet to be investigated by the police and the sole reason for naming the priest is the Catholic Church's refusal to stand the priest down. Sen. Xenophon had said that the Church had taken too long to respond to the serious allegations.

It may be true that the Church has not acted adequately to respond to these allegations and its actions in the recent past have highlighted its inability to deal with allegations of this kind. However, the naming of an accused in parliament before guilt has been proven will do little to encourage the Church to amend its processes with regard to dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct. In fact, it may make the Church less likely to be forthcoming if there is an overhanging threat of accused priests being named and publicised through the parliament.

Any accused person has a right to the presumption of innocence, regardless of the crime. Sen. Xenophon's abuse of the power of parliamentary privilege stands in direct contrast to this cornerstone of our justice system.

Sen. Xenophon's response to accusations by the chair of the Australian Catholic Justice Council, Bishop Saunders, that Xenophon's actions constitute a "stunt" that hasn't "done the cause of justice any good at all", has been to appeal to its popularity among the public. This is just an appeal to mob justice of the kind that is normally the purview of shock-jocks and tabloids, not the Commonwealth Parliament (although previous abuses of the privilege have similarly dragged it down to that level).

Sen. Xenophon's actions have done nothing to further the cause of victims of sexual abuse. The only outcome of this is to publicise an investigation into an accused person, even before they have been charged with an offence. It is possible that Sen. Xenophon may even have compromised the accused's ability to receive a fair trial and undermined the victim's ability to achieve justice through the courts. Xenophon's actions do nothing but undermine the justice system and the integrity of the parliament using the victims of abuse as a platform for a cynical exercise in self-promotion.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Fundamental institutions are cast aside in the pursuit of raw power

"THE presumption of innocence until proven guilty is a foundation of our democracy. There are investigations underway that need to be allowed to take place and resolved, and those resolutions will determine whether Parliament has a role to play in this matter.

It is a very dangerous precedent for Parliament to call a member to explain allegations made against them, before proper process and natural justice have reached their conclusions, as this would blur the line between our parliamentary and judicial systems."

Rob Oakeshott, MP (Ind)

The Craig Thompson scandal that has engulfed parliament this week has once again shown that the Liberals are prepared to do anything, including breaking political convention and undermining our system of justice, to gain power. It has been a raw and grubby affair, particularly since the scandal itself is so salacious.

The quote above from independent MP, Rob Oakeshott highlights the issues that seem to have been forgotten in the Opposition's headlong grab for power; that everyone, regardless of what they are alleged to have done, is entitled to a presumption of innocence and that it is the courts and not the parliament or the media that are the ultimate arbiters of innocence or guilt. However, the opposition is happy to cast aside all those principles in its relentless drive for power.

It is ironic that convention and tradition have been cast aside by the so-called conservatives, now fully re-casting themselves not as a conservative or even liberal party but a radical neo-con machine focused purely on the obtaining and holding of power at whatever cost.

And they say the ALP has lost its values.....

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Recipe: Palak Paneer

Palak Paneer
2 Large bunches of spinach (or 2 pkts frozen)
2 cm Piece of fresh ginger
1 Clove garlic
4 Red chilies
1 pkt (250gr) Paneer
3 TB Plain Yogurt
1 TB Low fat cream
1/4 Cup Vegetable stock
Ghee for frying

Spice Mix
1 tsp Cumin
1 tsp Coriander
1 tsp Turmeric
1/4 tsp Garam Marsala

If using fresh spinach, blanch the spinach in boiling salted water for 2-3 minutes and refresh the cooked spinach in cold water.
If using frozen spinach, defrost the spinach.
Put the cooked/defrosted spinach into a food processor and blend to a paste.
De-seed the chilies and chop finely. Finely chop the ginger and garlic.
Fry the chilies, garlic and ginger in ghee. Add the spice mix and fry for a few minutes to cook the spices.
Add the spinach and fry for a few minutes.
Add the yogurt and cream and the stock and reduce to a slow simmer.

In a fry pan, fry the paneer in ghee until golden and add it to the curry. Simmer the curry for a few minutes more to allow the flavours to blend.

Serve the curry over rice.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Demands for flexibility hide a failure to adapt

Recently there has been a call from members of the Liberal Party and their supporters to repeal certain parts of Labor's Fair Work Act to enhance what they like to call "flexibility". One of the major points that has been raised is that penalty rates are a major imposition on the labour flexibility of the flagging retail sector.

The retail sector has complained that inflexibility in the Fair Work Act means that they are often unable to open at the times that they desire because penalty rates make it unfeasible.

However, it is obvious that the retail sector, with the encouragement of the Liberal Party's Work Choices champions,  is merely engaging in a campaign to lobby government to allow them to cut wages because if  penalty rates actually were the problem, then the retail sector would make more use of means already at its disposal to alter penalty rates and hours of work.

Section 144 of the Fair Work Act requires that any modern award must contain a flexibility term which allows employers and employees to agree to changing certain terms of employment under the award.

In the General Retail Industry Award 2010 [PDF] (an instrument that is likely to cover a large number of retail employees) the flexibility clause states:

"7.1 Notwithstanding any other provision of this award, an employer and an individual employee may agree to vary the application of certain terms of this award to meet the genuine individual needs of the employer and the individual employee. The terms the employer and the individual employee may agree to vary the application of are those concerning:
(a) arrangements for when work is performed;
(b) overtime rates;
(c) penalty rates;
(d) allowances; and
(e) leave loading
As long as the employee is "better off overall" (s7.3(b)), for example by including a higher base rate of pay, an employer can enter into an individual flexibility arrangement with that employee.

So it is untrue that the Fair Work regime is inflexible with regard to penalty rates and, like their complaints about the GST payable on overseas purchases, it appears that the retail industry is once again failing to understand the conditions under which their own industry works.

The retail sector is busily trying to blame everything but its own inability to adapt to a changing environment. It consistently fails to recognise that its main advantage against online shopping is that of the "shopping experience" of which customer service is a major part.

However, the industry's response is that paying their staff less is the best way for the retail sector to regain their lost competitive edge. Undoubtedly, reducing pay will encourage their already low-paid staff to provide customers with the sort of service that stops them running off to online stores.

The industry's simple knee-jerk response to the changes bought about by online retail has been to demand government concessions and extra "flexibility" to cut workers' wages and conditions to fix the retail dilemma. These demands show just how incapable the retail industry is of seeing that its own failure to understand and adapt to the changing market are the real reasons for its problems.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The good and ill of social media: a parable

In the wake of the London riots, UK Prime Minster David Cameron has proposed to ban social media to prevent the organisation of social unrest via platforms such as Blackberry, Twitter and Facebook.

Many have pointed out the hypocrisy when comparing Cameron's approach to that of Arab dictators during their own uprisings.

This reminded me of a parable (originally from the middle-east, I think) that I was told when I was a child that those that would ban social media should pay heed to, before considering taking such a drastic step.

(I'm doing this from memory, so to those who know this story, sorry if the rendition is not the best)

The Best and the Worst Meal in the World.

There once was a young man who was known for his  many skills and his wisdom despite his tender years and because he was so wise the King had bestowed upon him great rank and privilege.

This caused a great deal of jealousy in the court and many of the courtiers openly questioned the King's judgement in promoting this young man. The King's advisors told the King that he ought to set the young man a task to prove his wisdom the quell the rumours and innuendo in the court.

The King pondered what task would properly test his young protege's wisdom and prove to his courtiers that his judgement was sound in his promotion of his young charge.

After much deliberation the King decided upon a task that would prove his protege's skill and wisdom. He summoned his young protege and told him that to prove his wisdom and skill, he wanted him to cook the best meal in the world for the King and his courtiers.

The young man went away and pondered what would prove both his wisdom and skill and decided upon a dish of ox tongue. He delicately seasoned the tongue and cooked it to perfection and presented the dish to the King and his courtiers. All agreed that indeed it was a delicious dish and asked the young man why he considered it the best dish in the world.

The young man answered: "Well Sirs, the tongue can create things of great beauty: poetry, stories, it can be use to inspire men and to bring them to tears, its by the work of our tongue that Man creates his dominion over the beasts."

The courtiers decided that this was indeed a wise answer but were still not convinced and so they set him a further task: to make the worst meal in the world.

The young man went away and pondered what would prove both his wisdom and skill and decided, once again, upon a dish of ox tongue. He delicately seasoned the tongue and cooked it to perfection and presented the dish to the King and his courtiers.

The King was surprised: "you have served us the same dish! How can this be both the best and the worst dish in the world?"

The young man answered: "Well, just as the tongue can produce things of great beauty, it can also create things of great evil. It can destroy men's reputations, inspire men to great evil, be used to invoke jealousy and rage, be used to slander and undermine and that its why it is also the worst dish in the world."

The King and his courtiers were surprised by the young man's wisdom and no-one in the court questioned the young man's elevation to such high station again.


In the same way Social Media can be used for great good or ill, so before cutting out his citizen's digital tongues to prevent further ill, Cameron and his ilk should also realise the great good that they will also be extinguishing.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Recipe: Prawn Vindaloo

300g Uncooked Prawns
1 Can chopped Tomatoes
1 Brown Onion
2 Cl Garlic
2 Hot Red Chili
1 TB chopped Fresh Ginger
1 Cinnamon Stick
1 tsp Garam marsala
1 tsp Yellow Mustard Seeds
2 TB White Vinegar
Ghee for frying

Spice Mix
1 TB ground Corriander
1 tsp ground Cumin
1 tsp ground Black Pepper
1 tsp Tumeric
1/4 tsp Ground Red Chilli

Melt the Ghee over a hot pan
Add the Mustard Seeds and fry until they begin to "pop"
Add the Garlic, Chilli and Ginger and quickly fry
Add the Onion and fry until just translucent.
Add the Spice Mix and fry until the spices are cooked
Add the Tomatoes and the Cinnamon stick and turn the heat to a low simmer with the lid on.
Simmer for around 20 mins and add the Vinegar.
Simmer for another 10 mins or so without the lid.

Let the sauce cool a little, remove the Cinnamon stick and then blend.

In a frypan, fry the prawns in some Ghee until just before cooked. Add the Garam Marsala and fry until the prawns have completed cooking.

Return the sauce to the pot and add the prawn/marsala mix. Combine the ingredients and stir through over a very low heat.
Cook for a further 1-2 mins to allow the flavours to blend (be careful not to overcook the prawns).

Serve over rice.
<sorry, no photos. I ate it before I could be bothered finding batteries for the camera>

Monday, July 18, 2011

Anonymity, pseudonymity and Google+:an idea to enhance privacy

I've been playing  with Google's new Google+ social network and on the whole I've been impressed. The network seems to combine the best aspects of Twitter and Facebook with a relatively easy to understand privacy model based on "circles". This model is meant to be an analogue of people's offline circles.

However, Google has decided that all profiles must be based on the person's real name which I believe breaks this analogue between online and offline circles and undermines some of the great "open-yet-private" model of Google+

Everyone has different personas depending on which circle they are currently interacting with, their work persona, social persona, family persona, etc. These personas are conveyed by verbal and physical cues when interacting with each persona. These cues cannot be easily replicated online because of the medium. People use pseudonyms to get around this problem, these pseudonyms are often linked to their real persona, but sometimes not. This is a fundamental difference between psudonymity and anonymity.

I use a pseudonym to interact on this blog and on twitter because this is the persona that I want to project to the internet. I interact with people using this persona and although with any quick searching someone could link my real name with my handle, it allows me to use a pseudonymous persona when acting as a public person on the internet. Conversely, my "private" persona, the one linked to my real name, is used to interact with people I know on a personal level.

Google+ conveniently has a privacy system that encourages the adding of people that you might interact with on the internet - not just those who you might know. This means that you're encouraged to add those that you have only ever interacted with pseudonymously which means they are now interacting with you under your real name - even though you have built your relationships under the pseudonym.

There may be many reasons why someone would like to keep those personas separate. For example, I don't want my real name to be searchable on the internet, but I'm happy enough to be found by people searching for my pseudonym - as it's public anyway.

I figure that the reason why Google is enforcing the "real name" policy is all about Search - more specifically providing customisable search results and also providing "endorsements" of results via the user's social relationships (ie. <name> shared this link in Google+ or <name> +1'd this). However, to people who have interacted with me via my pseudonym would find an endorsement by Czaxx more compelling than one by my real name (although the converse would be true for those in my "family" circle). Google+ would be enhanced if users could choose the persona - either real name or pseudonym - that interacts with which circle. For example, my Family circle would see my real name, but my Twitter circle would see my pseudonym - as would members of the public when seeing my +1's or my comments on public posts. Members of the public looking at endorsements by my pseudonym could then search for my other public posts, if they were so inclined (not that I'd expect anyone would care), to see if that endorsement is worth anything  (since a search for my real name would yield very little).

To allow the ability to choose which persona to use to interact with each circle would still fulfill Google's business goals for personalised search and it would also allow another layer of privacy and utility for Google+'s users.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Apple and the copyright maximalist cause

Apple Inc. has recently filed for a patent for a system to prevent people from filming events  such as concerts and sporting events. Although this patent does not describe any systems that are implemented in any Apple products, it does point to Apple responding to the concerns of the copyright maximalists in the content industry, most likely in an attempt to secure favourable licensing terms.

Apple has always been a company that has kept tight rein on the use of its hardware/software and has been zealous in its defence of its own intellectual property, so it is unsurprising that it would take this position. However, the ubiquity of its iTunes as a content distribution service makes receiving preferential licensing treatment in return for acquiescing to the content industries' ideology a potential further constraint to the online content distribution channel. In fact, it has the potential to set Apple up as a monopoly provider of content.

The content industries essentially left the online content distribution business when they pursued their litigation against Napster (and their subsequent litigation-as-a-business-model) and Apple has filled this gap with the iTunes store.

iTunes has been the most ubiquitous  model for online content delivery (with some oblique competition from Amazon and a johnny-come-lately from Google) and has an effective monopoly on legal content distribution. The filing of this patent indicates that Apple is prepared to further ingratiate itself with big content to secure its monopoly over content distribution. The danger of this is that as content producers effectively lobby governments and have quisling technology companies prepared to acquiesce to their particular brand of copyright maximalism, the nascent disruptive forces of content distribution over internet will be stymied.

The lobbying of governments is enhanced by tame technology companies providing a "model" system for legal content distribution, even though this "model" system might be utlimately mandated by preferential agreements struck between content producers and those distributors that are prepared to toe the ideological line. All of this will come not just at the expense of consumers, but at the expense of amateur creativity and the unique documenting of cultural events by amateur recordings.

Apple has signaled its intentions. So although they make shiny, shiny things, Apple is not your friend. Through its near-monopoly iTunes store and cosying up to the copyright maximalists it represents a threat to creativity on the web, albeit wrapped in shiny packaging with an 'i' in front of its name.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Constructing strong and memorable passwords

The recent Sony PlayStation Network (PSN) hack has revealed that weak passwords are still all the rage with classics such as "password", "123456" and bizarrely "Seinfeld" (considering PSN was launched in 2006, well after the final show in 1998) making up the top passwords selected for access to the PSN.

It's an age-old problem of computer security that no matter how secure the system, users will always be the weakest link - and that weakness is often expressed in password choice. Most users will excuse weak passwords or the re-use of passwords by arguing that "its impossible to remember", which is true if you expect that they'll remember a random collection of numbers and letters. The best way to construct a strong password is by the use of memes - and if you make your memes fun then people will use them to construct their own passwords.

An article in the Fairfax press suggests choosing a nursery rhyme (or other memorable phrase), taking the first letters of each word and substituting some for numbers and symbols will form the basis of a strong password which you can then customise for each service by adding a letter, such as 'F' for Facebook. Although this is a good method it still doesn't pass the memorable test because the nursery rhyme or whatever is not associated with the service. Also adding the letters to designate which service makes the password guessable if one is compromised (a fact the article acknowledges).

A method that I have suggested to people which tends to be effective is to choose a song that they can associate with the service and follow the method suggested in the article. This makes the password memorable and creates vastly different passwords for each service. A few examples that came out of this excercise were a favourite ABBA song for a NAB internet banking password (NAB sounds like ABBA apparently), Please, Mr Postman by the Beatles for a mail service and Taking it Easy by the Eagles for eBay (Taking it eBay, possibly?!). Regardless of the memes used (or their taste in music), each of these elements were memorable to the person making the password. From there it is a simple matter of constructing it along the lines outlined in the article (although I also suggest a consistent substitution scheme for example the first substitution is always a symbol).

So for example, if you chose U2's "I still haven't found what I'm looking for" for your Google services:
IsHfwILF goes to 1sHfw1LF and if your service allows symbols: !sHfw1LF, which isn't a bad password even though the attempt at irony in the song selection is terrible.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Ignorance powers the climate change debate

The recent furore over Cate Blanchett appearing in an ad [video] supporting climate change has highlighted the strong current of anti-intellectualism that is driving the carbon pricing debate. The opposition has shown itself all too keen to pander to Australia's inherent cultural cringe to brand celebrities, economists, and scientists who support a carbon price as elitist and out of touch. It is interesting to note that it was Blanchett that garnered all of the criticism and not Michael Caton, an actor more associated with "ordinary Australians" through his roles in "The Castle" and "Packed to the Rafters". The reason for this is to play into the narrative that the opposition is trying to build around an "elitism" that is supposedly at the heart of carbon pricing.

This characterisation of the debate as an "us and them" rather than a debate about ideas is a hallmark of the tea-party style politics that have become such a feature of the rhetoric of the right. This dichotomy between "us" the ordinary citizen and "them" the intellectual elitist is the very building block of the astroturfing "movements" that are built up by powerful interests who are happy to stand behind and manipulate these so-called people's movements to further their own corporate interests. The involvement of Koch Industries in undermining climate science and engineering the "debate" both by manipulating the right-wing media and by funding the Tea Party in America is well documented but in Australia we are only just beginning to see the rise of a similar model of politics.

Combined with the new activism of large corporate interests in the mining industry, the rhetoric by the opposition and its News Ltd. cheerleaders is straying dangerously close to that of the Tea Party - building the dynamic of "us and them" that is so characteristic of tea-party politics.

The Government has not helped itself in this regard. Its inability to disassociate itself from the "elitism" narrative, built in some part by the intellectual Kevin Rudd, has fed into the anti-intellectual narrative. This was highlighted almost comically in the debate over the Resource Super Profits Tax (RSPT) on mining. The miners ad depicted an "ordinary" mine-worker talking to "ordinary Australians" about issues to which they could relate. Compare that with the Government's ad set in a lecture theatre, the very epitome of "academic elitism". Feeding this narrative that has carefully been built up by the opposition and its powerful allies effectively devastated the government's reforms.

The opposition effectively builds this anti-intellectual narrative with its simplistic sloganeering and cheap politics. Distilling every argument down to its simplistic "us and them" dichotomy, eschewing debate. It is combined with careful dog-whistling to the extreme right to assure them that whatever policies they do actually put forward are always done with a wink and a nod to the extremes.

This unhelpful narrative undermines the whole public policy process, but then it is the opposition's goal to reduce every debate to sloganeering. The opposition doesn't even try to engage in the policy debate, barely selling their own alternative "direct action" plan as it is their intention to merely frame any debate regardless of its content into an "us vs. them" slanging match. This charactisation of the debate away from actual policy to the "us and them" rhetoric enables the seemingly hypocritical attack on Blanchett for her wealth and elite status while praising the even more wealthy Gina Rinehart. The narrative paints Rinehart as the "down to earth mine worker" and Blanchett as the "elitist intellectual".

The building of the anti-intellectual narrative is what has leads to the more unhinged types resorting to making death threats and engaging in campaigns of bullying against scientists doing their research. Even though those that build the narrative would seek to deny the connection.

The dangerous narrative is of little concern to the activist corporate interests. It is important to them that debates are reduced to dichotomies of "us and them" as it makes it easier for them to mobilise astroturf anti-intellectual movements against those which would seek to limit their power. It enables them to excuse their own hypocrisy, shut down debate and mobilise their astroturf campaigns with their cries of "out of touch elite". Anti-intellectualism is a powerful force which tea party politics has harnessed both here and in the US and it has been ruthlessly exploited by the new right.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Recipe: Prawns and shaved zucchini with Champagne butter sauce

Prawns and shaved zucchini with champagne butter sauce on angel-hair pasta
300gr Prawns (uncooked)
1 Zucchini (shaved thinly)
1 Red chili
1 Clove Garlic
1 Leek
1 Tbsp Butter
1 Tbsp Preserved lemon (finely chopped)
1 Tbsp Parsley
a few sprigs of Thyme
1/2 cup Sparkling white wine (or Champagne)
Squeeze of Lemon juice
Fresh Angel-hair Pasta

Fry the chili and garlic in a little olive oil until fragrant
Add the butter and finely chopped Leek and cook until leek has softened
Add the prawns and fry until they are just cooked
Add preserved lemon and sparkling white wine, reduce heat, add the zucchini and cook until liquid has reduced slightly (be careful not to stew the prawns)
Add parsley, lemon juice and thyme and stir through for a few more seconds
Season and Serve with the fresh pasta

Enjoy with the rest of the sparkling

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Too relaxed and comfortable

In 1996, John Howard stated that he wanted to see Australians "relaxed and comfortable" and now, in 2011, we're seeing the economic results of this maxim. In four terms of government, keeping specific classes of people "relaxed and comfortable", the Coalition built a dangerous entitlement culture which has led to an unsustainable structural deficit within the economy. Middle-class welfare has made Australians so relaxed and comfortable that they feel that the government is responsible for maintaining their lifestyles when they make a decision that would normally make them worse off. In the past, Australians accepted that buying a house, having a child, sending children to private schools, having private health insurance, having a new large car and purchasing large consumer items such as plasma TVs would have financial consequences - consequences that they themselves would have to manage. However, the previous Coalition government have convinced them that these decisions ought to be funded by the government.

In a recent interview on 7:30, a 'typical Australian family' noted that "the big winners from the [2011] Budget will be caravan parks, because that's where we're gonna take our holidays for the next three years."

So, it appears that we've become so 'relaxed and comfortable' about living on government handouts that we expect them to fund our holidays too.

According to the opposition, the subsidisation of the lifestyles of Australian people can be funded without raising taxes but this does raise the question of just how the Coalition can fund this ever expanding welfare spend. Cutting 12,000 public servants and cancelling the NBN will be insufficient over the long-term to pay for it, but these are the only big ticket "saving" items that the opposition has put forward.

As with the opposition's direct action plan on carbon (which I have discussed previously), middle-class welfare of this nature will continue to expand pressure on the budget, necessitating cuts to expenditure that must extend beyond public sector job cuts and the rolling back of the government's programs. So once again the questions must be asked: "how much are they going to borrow?", "what are they going to tax?" or more likely, "what are they going to cut?" to keep Australia "relaxed and comfortable".

Monday, May 16, 2011

Cheap political points at the expense of the justice system

Once again the opposition are attacking and undermining the democratic institutions that underpin our society in another appeal for cheap votes. Liberal Senator Julian McGauran has used parliamentary privilege to launch and extraordinary attack on the Melbourne academic who provided expert witness testimony in the case of the man who threw his daughter of the Westgate bridge - R v Freeman [2011] VSC 139 (11 April 2011)

Sen. McGauran used the the parliament to attack Graham Burrows as "a psychiatrist of last resort and one who will sing whatever song the defence wants". Not only is this an appalling attack on Mr. Burrows but it is an attack which undermines our justice system itself. Expert witnesses need to be able to give their evidence in difficult cases and not have parliamentarians calling for them to lose their job.

Sen. McGauran fails to understand that the primary duty (see form 44A) of any expert witness is to the court and not to any particular side of the case - and it is up to the jury, not parliamentarians, to decide on the weight of that evidence. In this particular case, the jury did not agree with Mr. Burrows' evidence. This in no way determinative of the veracity or otherwise of Mr. Burrows evidence - the jury has decided that there was more evidential weight to the expert testimony of the prosecution (as well as other evidence adduced in the case) and it is beyond reasonable doubt that Mr. Freeman committed the crime. In essence the system appears to have worked as it should so it is difficult to see that Sen. McGauran's attack is anything other than an abuse of parliamentary privilege for the purpose of scoring the very cheapest of political points.

These cheap political points come at the expense of the integrity of the system itself. It undermines justice if an expert witness is second-guessing their evidence because they are afraid of being attacked in parliament. It undermines their fundamental duty to the court to provide their expert witness testimony if they curtail the way they present their evidence for fear of an attack on their reputation.

Members of the opposition seem to be happy to undermine fundamental societal institutions such as freedom of speechfreedom of religion and now the justice system itself. This pernicious grab for votes shows that the Liberal party is happy to appeal to the extremes of society to pursue its cynical attempts to gain power at the expense of the fundamental institutions of this country.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The rule of force undermines justice

The mythologising of the recent killing of Osama bin Laden has already begun with the Right (particularly in America) already claiming that the Bush-era policies (unfortunately carried over into the Obama administration) of torture, extra-judicial killings and using the rule of force over that of law have been vindicated. However, the actions by the US to assassinate bin Laden are likely to be more counterproductive to the War on Terror as they undermine the rule of law and give succor to those who would prefer an anarchic international system ruled by force and supported by perpetual conflict. This is precisely the sort of world in which the poisonous ideas of Osama bin Laden and his ilk gain credence and following.

Although there are many valid criticisms that can be leveled at the United Nations (and in particular the archaic United Nations Security Council system), it at least provides the legal framework for the operation of international security. Unfortunately the US-led war on terror has done much to undermine this system - particularly with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

It has been argued by critics of the invasion of Afghanistan, that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) never authorised the use of force in Afghanistan. The two instruments that are widely thought to have authorised the use of force are:

1. UNSC Resolution 1368 which firstly re-affirms the right to self-defence in Article 51 of the UN charter and states in clause 3:
"[The UNSC] Calls on all States to work together urgently to bring to justice the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of these terrorist attacks and stresses that those responsible for aiding, supporting or harbouring the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of these acts will be held accountable;"

2. UNSC Resolution 1373 imposed a duty of Member States to:
"Refrain from providing any form of support, active or passive, to entities or persons involved in terrorist acts, including by suppressing recruitment of members of terrorist groups and eliminating the supply of weapons to terrorists;"

Proponents of the invasion argue that, although the resolutions do not specifically authorise the use of military force, the harbouring of Osama bin Laden by the Taliban constituted an illegal act for which they should be held accountable. Furthermore, the right to self-defence from terrorist act would include bringing to justice the perpetrators of terrorist acts and those who provide material support to those perpetrators. However, while proponents of this argument are happy to apply it to the situation in Afghanistan, they are loathe to apply it universally.

The view that sovereign nations habouring terrorists provides a blank cheque to use military force is also held out as the reason for the ability of US forces to raid the compound in which Osama bin Laden was hiding. This action has even further damaged strained relations between Pakistan and the US which ultimately undermines the ostensible aims of the War on Terror to make the world safer. An unstable Pakistan would be disastrous, which is probably why the US has made little noise about the fact that bin Laden had been hiding in relative plain sight in Pakistan for anything up to ten years.

The problem of the raid is that its aim was not to arrest bin Laden, but to assassinate him. An arrest operation would likely have garnered less criticism - particularly if that arrest had led to a trial, either in the US or preferably before the International Criminal Court (although the US is not a signatory to the ICC). This would have sent the message that there are international crimes for which a person may be arrested and tried, rather than the message that the US can go into any country and assassinate whomsoever it pleases. One could imagine that if other countries pursued the same policies there would be uproar - and an ultimately unworkable and unstable international system.

This is why the rule of law must be applied universally. The trial before a competent court with access to a defense counsel gives authority to the decision to arrest and supports a workable international framework for dealing with international criminals. Although the ICC would be preferable, an American court would have sufficed in this instance and the potential breach of international law (although it could be argued that UNSC Resolution 1368 authorised the action) could be remedied. There has been precedent for this in the past.

The bringing to trial of international war criminals sends a message to people who would commit these types of crimes that they will be arrested and bought before the court as a common criminal, and not assassinated and martyred by a State which holds as little regard for the law as they do.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Freedom from speech

It was Voltaire who said (paraphrased): "I disapprove of what you say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it" in his defence of the importance of freedom of expression. However, he did not go on to say "I'll defend to the death your right to not be criticised when you say something stupid" which appears to be the instant reaction that comes from the right-wing commentariat every time they are subjected any criticism of their views. Often this criticism is framed as somehow interfering with their right to free speech (although they are very happy to dole out criticism of other's views).

In Australia, this attitude was hardened during the Howard years, particularly during the rise of One Nation. Comments criticising the idiotic statements by Hanson were countered by the phrase "political correctness" (see previous blog post). In fact, it was Howard himself that lent credence to this position by commenting that the expression of these views showed that a "pall of political correctness" had been lifted from Australia.

Since then, the right has become emboldened to expect that their commentary will go unchallenged as the mere mention of "political correctness" along with other right-wing favourites such as accusations of "left-wing bias", "chattering classes" and "chardonnay-sipping lefties" can defeat even the most structured and compelling of arguments.

In fact, any criticism at all is construed as the inherent left-wing bias of the media that in some way is out to gag those poor commentators of the right - who, of course, don't get any coverage for their views.

The recent offensive comments by Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby have added a new excuse to the lexicon of right-wing commentary: "the vitriol of twitter". Indeed, according to Jim the offensive comments should have been allowed to pass uncritically as they were just a reflection of his views and those of "older diggers" who had come to not recognise the Australia in which they lived. Wallace accused [video] a small cabal of "twitter activists" who sought to "manipulate the media" of taking his offensive comments out of context. So it appears that "twitter activists" can be added to "chardonnay-sippers, "inner-city latte drinkers" "political correctness" and "chattering classes" as pejorative terms that the right can use to defeat any argument or criticism.

Free-speech is a nebulous thing to the right-wing commentariat. It is something that they should enjoy without criticism or having to defend their comments in any way. It only extends to things they agree with and things that they don't should be censored.

So although we may take Voltaire's words to heart and attempt to defeat stupid comments with reasoned argument (or reasonable criticism), the right (and in particular the Christian right), continue to use pejorative accusations to howl down anything with which they don't agree.

In the end, maybe it is Voltaire's famous prayer that ultimately explains the right's continual making of indefensible, idiotic comments and their outrage at the criticism that follows:

"I always made one prayer to God, a very short one. Here it is: "O Lord, make our enemies quite ridiculous!" God granted it."

Friday, April 22, 2011

Recipe: Crispy Mongolian Tofu

Crispy Mongolian Tofu


Crispy Tofu
1 pkt of firm Tofu
3 TB cornflour
1 Tsp garlic powder
pinch salt
3 TB peanut oil for frying

2 TB Dark Soy sauce
1 TB Light Soy sauce
1 TB Chinese rice wine
2 Tsp Rice wine vinegar
1/2 Tsp Sesame oil
2 Tsp Brown sugar

2 cm piece of finely chopped fresh ginger
2 cloves Garlic
1/2 Tsp dried chili flakes
3 Spring onions (green and white parts separated)
1 Capsicum
1 Bok Choy chopped
(any other vegies you'd like)
1 TB peanut oil for frying


For the crispy tofu:
Combine flour, salt and garlic powder
Cube the tofu and coat with the flour mixture
Fry in the oil until crispy (not brown) and set aside on kitchen paper to drain.

Quickly fry the chili flakes until fragrant and then add the garlic, ginger and whit parts of the spring onion. Fry for a few seconds more.
Add the chopped bases of the Bok Choy and the capsicum( and any other veg that need longer cooking)
Stir fry for 2 minutes or so.
Add green parts of the spring onion and bok choy leaves
Stir fry until cooked.

Add the combined sauce ingredients

Stir through the vegetable mix until all the vegies are coated (if the sauce is too thin, add 1 Tsp cornflour dissolved in a little water)

Just before serving, add the crispy tofu and stir to coat.

Serve with rice.

The Art of Censorship

Australia has always had a sorry record  of censoring the arts. From literature through to film, Australia's censorship scheme has been accused of being arbitrary and of being subject to political interference in what is meant to be a independent regime. This is despite the fact that the object of the scheme, set out in the classification guidelines, is to:
"...give effect, as far as possible, to the following principles:
  1. adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want;
  2. minors should be protected from material likely to harm or disturb them;
  3. everyone should be protected from exposure to unsolicited material that they find offensive;
  4. the need to take account of community concerns about:
    1. depictions that condone or incite violence, particularly sexual violence; and
    2. the portrayal of persons in a demeaning manner."
Despite these principles, a new attempt by the conservative elements of the Liberal party and the overly powerful Australian Christian Lobby to control what adults can see, is being mounted through the current inquiry into the Australian Film and Literature Classification Scheme chaired by conservative Christian Sen. Guy Barnett. Submissions to this inquiry have suggested that all art should be subject to classification before public display, and that the defence of "artistic merit" be removed. These submissions imply that this new regime merely "harmonises" the classification of artworks with the scheme that applies to other forms of media. However, this is just a thinly veiled attempt to use the economic disincentive of the requirement to classify artworks as a censorship regime.

The minimum fees applicable under the current regime range from $520 for a publication to $990 for a short film. A review of an adverse finding by the classification board is listed at $8,000. The visual arts, particularly the fine arts, has not been a traditionally high-earning sector for the vast majority of participants and so a financial imposition of this magnitude is likely to bar the display of their works for reasons of financial means rather than artistic merit or even the supposed "protection of minors from material that may harm or disturb them".

Although the proponents of this new regime argue that the classification of artistic works in this way is to prevent artworks being displayed that are grossly offensive, they continue to use the example of Bill Henson's work (described by Liberal Senator Julian McGauran as "paedophilia art") which was classified by the classification board as 'PG'. Regardless of what artistic merit or otherwise is attached to Henson's work, it is obvious from the continued use of this example that the real motive of these senators is to place an unacceptably high financial bar to the display of such work. This is despite the fact that it is unlikely to be classified in such a way that it cannot be displayed. It should be of grave concern that the classification scheme is to be subverted in this manner.

The display of artistic works is an important feature of any society; it adds richness and challenge to the way that we see ourselves. The creation of financial disincentive for artists to display their works is a grave act of subversive censorship. It should concern us all that those who advocate this regime are unable to see that a depiction of nudity is anything other than sexual in nature. This perception of the arts by the ACL and Liberal senators is more a reflection of the prurience of their own perceptions rather than the moral probity of their position.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Recipe: Japanese Curry

Japanese Curry is very different in flavour than other types of curry - sweeter and less spicy. Today I've tried to emulate the flavours from scratch rather than using one of the various packet curry mixes.


Spice Mix
3 tsp Turmeric
2 1/2 tsp Corriander
1 1/2 tsp Cumin
1 tsp Cardamon
1/2 tsp Black pepper
1/2 tsp Fennel
1/4 tsp Cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp Allspice
1/4 tsp Nutmeg

1 Star anise
1 Bay leaf
1 Clove of garlic (finely chopped)
2 1/2 cm Fresh ginger (finely chopped)
4 Carrots
2 Small turnips
1/2 Daikon radish
1 Brown onion (finely chopped)
1 Can crushed Tomato
1 Cup Dashi
2 TB Mirin
2 TB Sake
4 slices of Firm tofu
Pickled ginger to garnish

2 TB plain Flour
1 TB Ghee

Melt the ghee and add the onion and cook briefly on high heat. Turn the heat down, add a pinch of sea salt and continue to cook the onion until it is caramelised - about 15 mins.
Add the garlic and ginger and cook until fragrant.
Add a small amount of the dashi and scape the carmalised bits of the bottom of the pan before adding the rest of the dashi.
Add the bay leaf and star aninse.
Add the mirin
Add the carrots, turnip and radish and continue to simmer until they start to soften (about 10 mins)
Add the tomato and continue to simmer over a low heat until the vegetables are softened (about another 10 mins).
Add the sake and simmer for a little more while you prepare the roux.
In another pan dry roast the spice mix.
Remove the spice mix from the pan and melt the ghee.
Add the flour and cook until the colour changes slightly.
Once the roux is cooked, add the roasted spice mix (add more ghee if it is too dry).
Add some liquid from the curry to fully dissolve the roux and then transfer the roux/spice mix back into the curry to thicken. You may need to add some water if it is too thick.
Pan fry the tofu slices until browned.

Pour the curry over the tofu slices and serve with rice. Use some pickled ginger as a garnish.

Enjoy with the remaining sake.