an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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some thoughts on the importance of nations

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America – the most important country in the world (Fareed Zacharia)

There have been many most important countries in the world throughout human history. Usually self-styled. They become important through economic and military success. And they think, everyone of them, that this success gives them moral authority. This is the fundamental error of every powerful state in history, so tedious to relate. The fact is that Americans are no way morally superior to Mexicans, Australians or Koreans, or whoever. Every country, or state, or tribe, is full of individual humans striving equally to thrive – like every other life form.

If you believe, however, that you’re a member of the most important country in the world, that may play on your mind a little. It may move you, just a little, to believe, just a little, that you’re just a little more important than people from less important countries.

What does it mean though, to be more important? Is it about power? We can think of an elephant being a more powerful animal than a squirrel, but does that make her more important?

Maybe importance can be measured by imagining the country, or animal, not existing. If the USA, and all its people, disappeared tomorrow, that would have a much bigger impact than if, say, Fiji and all its people disappeared, and presumably not just because this compares 325 million with less than one million. A better comparison would be between the USA and China or India. Both these countries have more people than the USA but are less important, according to Zacharia. 

I’m guessing that Zacharia’s presumably offhand description of US importance has mostly to do with that country’s impact on the world. This surely gets to the nub of the matter. But this surely has no moral dimension. I’m not sure whether Zacharia meant to suggest a moral dimension to the USA’s importance. 

My view is that nations are like animals. Large animals tend to leave a larger footprint, metaphorically speaking. The main focus of any animal or nation is to sustain itself, and more. Other nations, or animals, are seen as a means to that end. So nations will see other nations as either exploitable (prey), helpful in the exploitation of others, dangerous (predators), or simply irrelevant. True, there are symbiotic relationships, and exploitation is perhaps a loaded word, but the world of the living goes on living by consuming other living beings. At least, that’s how it has gone on so far. 

Important countries consume more. Maybe that’s a negative, but they may do so by being smarter, or by hitting upon some clever and effective ruses before anyone else. So size isn’t everything, though it helps. Also, their cleverness or effectiveness teaches others – their prey as well as interested observers. They make the world wise up, quicken up. Remember the Mongols, an important nation of the past, or Hannibal, an important general. 

But I feel I’m being too male, thinking too much on destruction and aggression. The importance of nations today should be, and generally is, based on a different kind of cleverness, ingenuity, innovation. Yet we find this everywhere, as ideas spread more quickly than ever before. A young African boy generates wind energy for his village through internet-based DIY. This is important, and a great leveller. 

The internet is still largely American, and so on that basis alone, the USA should rightly view itself as the most important nation in the information age. Or is it simply the English language that has become most important? Science and technology are international, of course, but must be translated into English, if required, for best effect. This has been so for some time – think Mendel’s 1865 paper on the laws of segregation and independent assortment. It didn’t appear in English until 1901, years after Mendel’s death, as a result of some pioneers finally lighting upon it. English is surely an important language. 

So what would happen if the USA suddenly disappeared under the waves, with all its people, its weaponry and other technology, its industry? This would be a terrible tragedy, of course, for those loved and loving ones left behind. And yet, in the information age, surprisingly little, if any, of the technology and industry would be lost. The internet would survive, and with it the means for making bombs, multiple examples of beautiful or other people having orgiastic fun for the tutelage of our youth, the Khan Academy’s video lessons on physics, chemistry and assorted other subjects, and an endless variety of examples of dog, cat, bird, elephant, octopus and other cleverness, or silliness. In short, the human world would certainly progress, or continue, more or less unabated, proving that, however important the USA is, it isn’t indispensable.

But surely, if the USA disappeared, another country would take its turn as the most important country in the world. And what then, and which? 

That’s a very interesting question. The USA won’t, of course, disappear below the waves, and many if not most Americans firmly believe that their country must remain the most important for a long long time into the future. As did the British in their heyday, and the Romans, and the Egyptians, and the Sumerians, no doubt. And yet, our human world goes on, and seems to progress, with all its rises and declines.

They say that China will be the next most important country. I don’t see that happening in my lifetime. I’m skeptical of it happening as long as China retains its current political form. The age of major military conquest is over, I believe, so conquest will have to be of a different type, a much more subtle type, perhaps more subtle than I’m capable of foreseeing at present. Too many nations have sampled, for too long, the flavour of freedom, participation and dissent to be guiled by China’s top-down, controlling approach to administration. China will become more and more of an outlier. In any case, I don’t see the USA relinquishing its prominent position ‘any time soon’, as the Americans like to say. Ever the optimist, I’m hoping that the USA will bounce back from the Trump debacle with a much-reformed political system (especially with respect to presidential power and accountability), a renewed commitment to international relations, and a chastened sense of its failings and fragility, and the limits of its democracy.. 

But it’s important, always, to remember that nations are not people, and that people are always more important than nations. 

Written by stewart henderson

October 21, 2018 at 4:46 pm

how to define a planet: the problematic case of Pluto

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Pluto, with its ‘heart-shaped’ area known as Sputnik Planitia, imaged by New Horizons, July 14 2015

A while back I listened to a podcast from Point of Inquiry, in which two planetary scientists, Alan Stern and David Grinspoon, involved in NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, were separately interviewed, and were inevitably asked about Pluto’s demotion from planet status. Having not followed this issue, I was surprised at the response. So it’s time to take a closer look.

Of course I should be writing ecstatically about the New Horizons mission, not to mention those of Juno, Cassini, Mars’ Curiosity and so forth, and hopefully that will come, but the controversy about Pluto immediately struck me, as I thought, in my naïveté, that its demotion was a consensual thing amongst astronomers, with only the ignoroscenti (my neologism) left to mourn the fact (not that I mourned it particularly – Pluto still existed after all, and it didn’t care a jot what we thought of it).

Pluto, discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, was accepted as the ninth and final planet in our solar system for decades until the nineties, when another Kuiper belt object was discovered (besides Charon, Pluto’s large moon), and the Kuiper belt itself became a thing, in fact a massive thing, far bigger than the ‘familiar’ asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. We now know of more than 1000 kuiper belt objects, with at least 100,000 believed to exist. The Kuiper belt is widely spread out from the orbit of Neptune, and though Pluto is its largest and brightest object, it’s not the most massive. Presumably it’s for this reason that Pluto was demoted – what with the scattered disc and the Oort cloud there seemed to suddenly be a host of objects that could be included as planets, so it was thought better to exclude Pluto, or to demote it to dwarf planet status, presumably along with other assorted Kuiper belt objects (KBOs), rocks and iceballs that were worthy of the designation. That seemed okay to my thoughtless mind, but here’s what Alan Stern had to say on the subject:

Well, you know, we don’t really honour that classification in planetary science, that was really done by a group of different astronomers who don’t know much about planets. Let me give you a technical term, we call it BS. You know what BS stands for don’t you? Bad Science. Now you wouldn’t ask a podiatrist, a foot doctor, to help you if you had a cardiovascular problem with your heart, that’d be the wrong expertise, though they’re both doctors you’d be going for a cardiologist. And if you had a real estate problem you probably wouldn’t go to a divorce attorney, even though they’re both attorneys. In the space field we have many professions, we have engineering professions, we have many different scientific specialties, etc. Astronomers really don’t know much about planets any more than I’m an expert in black holes in faraway galaxies. They had a little meeting in 2006, they were worried that school children would have to memorise the names of too many planets, so they wrote a definition that limited the number of planets to eight. Now, right after that, Ira Flatow called me up on Science Friday and said, would you debate Mike Brown, who was one of the proponents of ‘let’s limit the planets to eight’, and I said, sure, and we got on the phone and it’s Science Friday live, and Mike Brown makes his case and says, ‘look we just can’t have 50 planets, it’s too many to remember.’ Now, I found that anti-scientific, it seems like engineering the definition, versus letting it inform you, but Ira said, Alan what’d you think, ‘can’t have 50 planets’, what d’you say back to MIke? I said, ‘well if you can’t have 50 planets then we’re probably going to have to go back to eight states, I guess’. And he was speechless…

I love that story – though no doubt Mike Brown would’ve told a different one. So let’s turn Stern’s objection into an inquiry. Was it scientifically correct/accurate/fair to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf/minor planet?

Happily I just happened to listen to a podcast of the Skeptics’ Guide a few days later, which has led me to a more detailed piece on Steven Novella’s Neurologica blog on the Pluto controversy. Apparently, in the above-mentioned 2006 meeting they decided that to be classified as a planet, a body in our solar system should meet 3 criteria:

  • it has to orbit the sun
  • it has to be spheroid (i.e. have the mass to be so, due to its gravity),
  • it must have cleared its orbit of other objects.

Now this third criteria immediately seems the dodgiest, as it sounds like it’s designed to eliminate any KBOs. And how do we know an orbit is cleared? After all, one day, a comet or asteroid may strike us, because our orbits have coincided this time around. And why is that third criterion even important?

Novella cites a recent paper by planetary scientist Phillip Metzger who argues that the third criterion is invalid and that nothing about a body’s orbit should be in the definition since orbits can alter due to external influences. Only characteristics intrinsic to the body should be included in the definition. This would essentially leave one criterion standing – that of sphericity. And even then, how sphere-like does a planet have to be? Another ‘problem’ with Metzger’s definition is that it would include moons, such as our own, and many others. Novella has his own classifying suggestion, which sounds promising to me:

We keep criteria “a” and “b” and drop “c”. However, we add that the object must not be in a subservient orbit around a larger object. What does that mean? If two objects, like the Earth and Moon, are in orbit around each other, and the center of gravity (barycenter) lies beneath the surface of one of the bodies, then the smaller object will be said to orbit the larger object, and is a moon. Therefore Europa, which is large enough by itself to be a planet, would instead be considered a moon because it orbits Jupiter.

I need to further explain the term ‘barycentre’, for my own sake. Think of two bodies in gravitational relationship to each other. Inevitably, one of them will be more massive, and will exert a greater gravitational force. An obvious case is the Earth and the Moon. Between the two there is a point, the ‘centre of gravity’, or barycentre,  around which the two bodies revolve, but because the Earth is a lot more massive that the Moon and they’re relatively close to each other, that barycentre is actually close enough to the Earth’s centre to be within the mass of the Earth, with the result that only the moon revolves. The Earth, though, is very much affected by the Moon’s gravitational field, which causes a slight wobble as well as tidal effects on the Earth’s surface. 

Interestingly, Novella’s reclassification would include Charon, Pluto’s ‘moon’, as a planet (as well as Pluto of course) because its size relative to Pluto puts the barycentre at a point between the two bodies, rather than within Pluto. So Pluto-Charon would be reclassified as a binary-planet system. It would also promote Ceres, in the asteroid belt, and Eris and Makemake, two recently discovered Kuiper belt objects, to planetary status. That takes the current eight up to thirteen, with others yet to be discovered. 

It’s unlikely of course that the astronomical overlords who reclassified Pluto would be swayed by any mere outsider’s view, however well-reasoned, but this examination of the issue is a reminder of just how dubious the reasoning of ‘experts’ can be, and how important it is to question that reasoning. Size apparently does matter to these guys, but this new category of ‘dwarf’ or ‘minor’ planet seems inherently unstable, and will probably become even more so as the number of discovered exoplanets increases. Will it be mass or volume that’s the decider, and what will be the mass or volume that decides? And does it really matter? It’s only nomenclature after all. And yet… The difference between an asteroid and a comet is important, is it not? And so is the difference between a planet and an asteroid. And so is the difference between a moon and a planet. And so… is it not? 

Written by stewart henderson

October 14, 2018 at 1:09 pm

the latest summary of my battle for justice

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SA’s Supreme Court, a possible destination

I’ve written five posts recently on what I call ‘the big lie’ (see links below), and I might end up turning it into a book. It looks like I’ll have plenty of time on my hands to do so. My last post was on January 20, and since then there’s been no word from DCSI (SA’s Department for Communities and Social Inclusion) on the review of the decision, which officially commenced on October 31 2017 – 105 days ago. On the website for the Screening Unit of DCSI (or DCSE in my case), we’re told that a review will take 6-8 weeks or longer. Of course they don’t say how long longer is.

105 days is of course exactly 15 weeks. I have been suspended from work without pay since November 10. I’d been in my job as an educator in English for Academic Purposes for only four years. It was mostly part-time, and TESOL is probably the most lowly-paid job in teaching, which is already well-recognised as an under-paid profession. However it’s the best job I’ve ever had, and I miss my students – a lot.

I point all this out because I want to make it clear that I lack the financial resources to hire a lawyer to help me clear my name in a civil or criminal court, even if there were any avenue for me to do so, and at this stage it appears not.

However, if I can find an avenue, I will represent myself.

So, two weeks ago I wrote an email to the people responsible for my review. I used the same email address they gave me for sending any further information that might assist my case – personal/professional references or any other documents I might have unearthed. My email was essentially a begging letter about the personal and financial stress I was going through due to their delayed decision. I received no response, so last week I wrote a letter of complaint to DCSI about the delay. I received no response from that either, so yesterday I filed an official complaint about the matter to the SA Ombudsman, whose office looks into official complaints about state government departments, inter alia. After managing finally to fill out correctly their not-so-user-friendly form, I was told they would respond within a fortnight.

So that’s where things stand at present, but I worry that the longer it takes for the Screening Unit to decide for or against me, the less likely it will be that I’ll be reinstated in my job, whatever the outcome.

Meanwhile, as well as trying to turn my mind to other things, and to blog about them, I’ve been looking online for possibilities for clearing my name, taking action against wrongful arrest or wrongful prosecution, and so forth. And I’ve come up pretty well empty. DCSI provided me with a pamphlet on Procedural Fairness as part of their request for further information back in April last year. Under ‘further avenues of appeal’ it states: ‘You may also seek a judicial review of  an administrative decision in the Supreme Court’. If the decision is against me, I will do that, but that won’t be enough, though it may be that the Supreme Court, in reviewing the case, will accept that a nolle prosequi decision was unfair in light of the complete absence of evidence presented. In which case, the DPP and SAPOL may have a case to answer, a case that I would be keen to pursue.

The problem with this, though, is that first and foremost I want my job back, and I’m getting on for 62 years of age. How long would all this take? And it’s also clear that seeking redress for false accusations, and even for unjust convictions leading to deprivation of liberty, is no easy matter in Australia. My online research on this stuff just leaves me feeling depressed. It should be said that the case of Roseanne Beckett, linked to above, ended well for her after 26 years (and the injustice she suffered completely dwarfs my own, to put it mildly).

My concern in fighting this case is:

First, to find out if the accuser is still sticking by his accusation.

Second, to determine how the police can justify not visiting the so-called scene of the crime until after the case had been transferred to a higher court (thus necessitating the production of evidence, or at least verification of the boy’s story).

Third, how can the police justify arresting me without evidence? Their own justification is stated tersely on their charge sheet:

‘Accused arrested to ensure appearance and due to the serious nature of the offence’.

So, two reasons are given. To take the second one first – due to the serious nature of the offence. Is it fair to arrest someone solely on the basis of a claim being serious or extreme? Think of the term used in science: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Prima facie, I can’t see how you can justify arresting someone for a crime as serious as rape, with all the opprobrium understandably attached to it, and the damage to the accused’s reputation, without any evidence whatever beyond the story of the accuser. To do so would, IMHO, lack due diligence to an extreme degree. So now to the first reason – to ensure my appearance – that is, to ensure I wouldn’t ‘do a runner’. However, this makes no sense. For many weeks before my arrest I was aware that a serious allegation had been made against me. I also made the police aware of this because, after weeks of being kept in the dark, I made an official complaint to the Police Complaints Authority about my situation. It was Anglicare who informed me, by phone, that a serious allegation had been made, immediately after they had manoeuvred my new foster-kid out of the house on a false pretext. Clearly, the police had contacted Anglicare about the allegation against me, and they (the police) would have ensured that no other minor was in my care until this matter was investigated. So the police knew that I knew something was afoot, and they would have known, or should have known, from the Police Complaints Authority matter, that I wasn’t going anywhere. In short, neither of the reasons given by the police for my arrest bear close scrutiny.

Fourth, how the DPP can justify proceeding, when their mission statement is clear that no case will be prosecuted unless there is a reasonable chance of conviction.

But at first glance there seems no avenue for fighting the whole case, so I would have to begin by fighting the DCSI’s decision. This fight would mean questioning why the screening unit looks upon nolle prosequi so negatively. But here I must say that my researches have uncovered something which I may have written about before, forgive me. That is, that there are three possible way in which the prosecution could be unsuccessful, not two, as I’d previously thought.  They are: a finding of not guilty (i.e. acquittal), which would entail an expensive full trial, which was never going to happen; a dismissal before arraignment, in which the DPP recognises it doesn’t have a case; and a nolle prosequi dismissal after arraignment, because the DPP has somehow convinced the magistrate that the defendant has a case to answer. It is because the case was sent to a higher court at arraignment (or did the arraignment actually take place in the higher court? I’m not sure) that I’m in the position I’m now in, without a police clearance, and in danger of never being able to teach again, even in a voluntary capacity, at least not in a community centre, where these more stringent police clearances are now mandatory.

In any case, it’s time now to act, I can’t keep waiting, stuck like a rabbit in the headlights. I’ve been too passive in this case. I need to take it to the Supreme Court, if possible – regardless of the eventual decision of DCSI.

https://ussromantics.com/2017/11/11/the-battle-for-justice-part-1-some-background-to-the-case/

https://ussromantics.com/2017/11/13/the-battle-for-justice-part-2-the-problem-with-nolle-prosequi/

https://ussromantics.com/2017/11/14/the-battle-for-justice-part-3-is-there-any-way-to-clear-your-name/

https://ussromantics.com/2017/11/21/the-battle-for-justice-an-update-the-problem-with-documents/

https://ussromantics.com/2018/01/20/police-procedures-the-dpp-and-subtle-corruption/

 

Trump downfall update. The latest indictments of Russians obviously undercuts Trump’s claims about the ‘Russian hoax’ as well as the ‘tattered FBI’ and might have an affect on the Trumpets. They should have an undermining effect on the Congress Trumpets in particular – Nunes, Collins, Cotton and co. If, after this, the GOP Congress continues to deny or do nothing about Russian conspiracy to influence elections, including the coming mid-terms, isn’t this obstruction of some sort? Or some sort of passive collusion? It certainly is an outrage. Pressure should next be brought to bear on sanctions, and that would mean more pressure on Trump.

Written by stewart henderson

February 17, 2018 at 11:32 am

The battle for justice part 2: the problem with nolle prosequi

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A prosecution should not proceed if there is no reasonable prospect of a conviction being secured. This basic criterion is the cornerstone of the uniform prosecution policy adopted in Australia.

from ‘The decision to prosecute’, in ‘Statement of prosecution policy and guidelines’, Director of Public Prosecutions, South Australia, October 2014

Continuing from last post, the case against me was dropped a short while after the arraignment, but not before the police made a visit to my home, the soi-disant scene of the crime. They’d never visited my home or made any contact with me since the arrest, many months before, but it seems the arraignment had spurred them, or forced them, into action.

This was something I’ve never really got. Like many of us I’ve watched my share of crime shows and whodunits. Typically, the arrest comes as the final scene, after weeks and months of painstaking sleuthing. Yet my arrest seemed to have come at the start (though I did have to wait for a while), before any questioning. And then, after the arraignment, the police suddenly showed up at the putative crime-scene to do their sleuthing at last.

I knew what they’d come for, too. Long before, my lawyer had told me some of the details of the boy’s claim. I had apparently raped him in the toilet, after which he’d gotten away and locked himself in the bedroom. I was able to tell the lawyer that none of the bedrooms in my house were lockable, so that part of his story was demonstrably false, so at long last they’d come to check. And then, almost the next day, I was told the case was over.

I don’t remember being sent any paperwork to that effect but I suppose I must have. I was just relieved it was all over, that sanity had prevailed, etc. But this year, more than 11 years on, I came to realise, thanks to a screening process by the DCSI (the South Australian government’s Department of Communities and Social Inclusion), that it wasn’t over, and that it would never be over. This was because of the little matter of ‘Nolle Prosequi’:

The entering of a nolle prosequi by the Director of Public Prosecutions means that he is not pursuing the prosecution at this stage. Theoretically he may pursue the prosecution at a later stage, but this rarely, if ever, happens. Normally the DPP does not give a reason for such a decision, but it is usually based on a problem with the evidence he has assembled. In the course of assembling it, or after it has been assembled in a book of evidence, a problem may arise with a witness or a crucial part of it, that would make it difficult to proceed. Difficulties of this nature usually undermine the whole basis for the trial. Even if new evidence is discovered, the problems with the old evidence remain. If a nolle prosequi is entered, and then registered by the court, the accused is discharged and free to go. He or she enjoys the presumption of innocence that all accused people enjoy until they are convicted of a crime beyond all reasonable doubt. (Carole Coulter, Irish Times, April 2006)

 

Nolle prosequi... is a legal term of art and a Latin legal phrase meaning “be unwilling to pursue”, a phrase amounting to “do not prosecute”. It is a phrase used in many common law criminal prosecution contexts to describe a prosecutor’s decision to voluntarily discontinue criminal charges either before trial or before a verdict is rendered. It contrasts with an involuntary dismissal. Legal effect [in the USA]: The entry of a nolle prosequi is not an acquittal, and the principle of double jeopardy therefore does not apply. The defendant may later be re-indicted on the same charge. Effect on future employment [in the USA] Federal agencies, especially the military, view nolle prosequi as an unfavorable judgement. This has the effect of requiring a waiver submission for service, or the outright denial of employment (WIKIPEDIA).

Nolle prosequi was the ‘finding’ in my case.

As indicated in the quotes above, nolle prosequi can be interpreted as anything from ‘presumed innocent’ to ‘still pretty suss’, and it seems any department, any arm of government, is at liberty to interpret it as they wish (and given the current environment, they’re more than likely to err on the side of the child/accuser). But here’s the kicker, as the yanks say. And it’s an extremely important and fundamental kicker for my argument. Once arrested (for sexual abuse or rape, say) nolle prosequi is essentially the best any accused can hope for!! This is the dirty little secret your lawyer is most unlikely to tell you about.

Let me explain. When you go and seek legal aid to defend yourself against a false charge [please, if only for hypothetical reasons, assume the accusation is false], it means you’ve already been arrested, and the DPP has already instituted proceedings against you. And once a prosecution is instituted, your lawyer will try to get it thrown out, i.e nolle prosequi. The other alternative is acquittal – but acquittal can only come after a full criminal trial. I quoted in my last post that an arraignment is the first stage of an 11-stage criminal trial in Australia. That should give an indication of just how humungous a criminal trial actually is – involving lawyers, witnesses and experts for both sides, the presentation of different types of evidence, examinations and cross-examinations, a jury presumably, and all in all a process that will tie up a courtroom for some time, with much expenditure of money and energy. So your lawyer is actually trying her best to make sure you don’t have your day in court. So nolle prosequi is the lawyer’s victory, but if organisations like DCSI interpret nolle prosequi as ‘still pretty suss’, that means you’re stuffed – for the rest of your life! If not longer.

Now, notice the statement from the DPP at the top of this post. It sounds impressive – they won’t go ahead with a case unless they have a reasonable prospect of succeeding (and this would surely mean having sufficient, or at least some, evidence). Now, let me tell you that during the whole 13 or 14 months that my case was ongoing, I was in a state of sleepless agony, and occasional rage, with the mantra ‘no evidence, no evidence’ echoing in my head, and on the day after I heard that my case was dismissed, I took to my computer and typed a terse paragraph to the DPP (yes I’m sometimes capable of terseness), accusing them of incompetence in my case, not only for seeming to pass the buck from lawyer to lawyer, but for going against their prosecution policy as stated on their website, which I quoted back to them (the policy was, I believe, worded a little differently in 2006 from the 2014 version quoted above, and I think then it actually mentioned evidence). Not surprisingly they didn’t respond, but I met my lawyer, purely by accident, a few months later and he told me my letter had caused quite a stir – which thrilled me as throughout the case I always felt like Mr Nobody or The Invisible Man. I asked him why, with no evidence at all, the case had lasted as long as it did. His response was that I was one of the lucky ones. Many people in his experience had gone through this process and been destroyed, based on no more evidence than they had against me. No more than someone’s story.

But I’ve had another insight since taking aim at the DPP all those years ago. Yes, I still think the DPP contravened their own policy by taking on my case, but I was forgetting, in my utmost naivety, the role of the police. Yes, the DPP say they won’t prosecute a case unless they have a reasonable chance of success, but when the police arrest a person and charge him with rape, the DPP obviously don’t know a thing about it. They only find out later, from the police. In other words, the DPP has cases ‘dumped’ on it by the police, and has to make the best of them. Their ‘reasonable prospect of conviction’ is based entirely on the word of the police that they have sufficient evidence. You can see here how a world of tension and acrimony might open up between the police and the DPP.

So it looks as if my anger against the DPP might’ve been misplaced. My anger should have been directed at the police. But of course if I’d written to the police about their lack of evidence, where would it have got me?

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 13, 2017 at 2:53 pm

Posted in argument, work

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Why science?

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why is it so?

Ever since I was a kid I was an avid reader. It was my escape from a difficult family situation and a hatred or fear of most of my teachers. I became something of a quiet rebel, rarely reading what I was supposed to read but always trying to bite off more than I could chew in terms of literature, history, and occasionally science. I did find, though, that I could chew almost anything – especially in literature and history. And I loved the taste. Science, though, was different. It certainly didn’t come naturally to me. I didn’t know any science buffs and in fact I had no mentors for any of my reading activities. We did have encyclopaedias, though, and my random reading turned up the likes of Einstein, Newton, Darwin, Pasteur and other Big Names in science. Of course I was more interested in their bios than in the nature of their exotic researches, but in my idealised view they seemed very pure in their quest for greater understanding of the material world. I sometimes wished I could be like them but mostly I just dived into ‘literature’, a more comfortable world in which ordinary lives were anatomised by high-brow authors like Austen, Eliot and James (I had a fetish for 19th century lit in my teens). I took silent pride in my critical understanding of these texts, it surely set me above my classmates, though I remember one day walking home with one of the smartest kids in my class, who regaled me with his exploration of the electronics of a transistor radio he was pulling apart at home. I remember trying to listen, half ashamed of my ignorance, half hoping to change the subject to something I could sound off about.

Later, having dropped out of my much-loathed school, I started hanging out, or trying to, with other school drop-outs in my working-class neighbourhood. I didn’t fit in with them to say the least, but the situation worsened when they began tinkering with or talking about cars, which held no interest for me. I was annoyed and impressed at how articulate they were about carbies, distributors and camshafts, and wondered if I was somehow wasting my life.

Into my twenties, living la vie boheme in punk-fashionable poverty among art students and amateur philosophers, I read and was definitely intrigued by Alan Chalmers’ unlikely best-seller What is this thing called science? It sparked a brief interest in the philosophy of science rather than science itself, but interestingly it was a novel that really set me to reading and trying to get my head around science – a big topic! – on a more or less daily basis. I was about 25 when I read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, in which Hans Castorp, a young man of about my age at the time, was sent off to an alpine sanatorium to be cured of tuberculosis. Thus began a great intellectual adventure, but it was the scientific explorations that most spoke to me. Wrapped up in his loggia, reading various scientific texts, Castorp took the reader on a wondering tour of the origin of life, and of matter itself, and it struck me that these were the key questions – if you want to understand yourself, you need to understand humanity, and if you want to understand humanity you need to understand life itself, and if you want to understand life, you need to understand the matter that life is organised from, and if you need to understand matter…

I made a decision to inform myself about science in general, via the monthly magazine, Scientific American, where I learned at least something about oncogenes, neutrinos and the coming AIDS epidemic, inter alia. I read my first wholly scientific book, Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and, as I was still living la vie boheme, I enjoyed the occasional lively argument with housemates or pub philosophers about the Nature of the Universe and related topics. In the years since I’ve read and half-digested books on astronomy, cosmology, palaeontology and of course the history of science in general. I’ve read The origin of species, Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and at least four biographies of Darwin, including the monumental biography by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. I’ve also read a biography of Alfred Russell Wallace, and more recently, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene, which traces the search for the cause of the random variation essential to the Darwin-Wallace theory. And I still read science magazines like Cosmos on a more or less daily basis.

These readings have afforded me some of the greatest pleasures of my life, which would, I suppose, be enough to justify them. But I should try to answer the why question. Why is science so thrilling? The answer, I hope, is obvious. It isn’t science that’s thrilling, it’s our world. I’m not a science geek, it doesn’t come easily to me. When, for example, a tech-head explains how an electronic circuit works, I have to watch the video many times over, look up terms, refer to related videos, etc, in order to fix it in my head, and then, like most people, I forget the vast majority of what I read, watch or listen to. But what keeps me going is a fascination for the world – and the questions raised. How did the Earth form? Where did the water come from? How is it that matter is electrical, full of charge? How did language evolve? How has our Earth’s atmosphere evolved? How are we related to bananas, fruit flies, australopithecines and bats? How does our microbiome relate to obesity? What can we expect from CRISPR/Cas9 editing technology? What’s the future for autonomous vehicles, brain-controlled drones and new-era smart phones?

This all might sound like gaga adolescent optimism, but I’m only cautiously optimistic, or maybe not optimistic at all, just fascinated about what might happen, on the upside and the downside. And I’m endlessly impressed by human ingenuity in discovering new things and using those discoveries in innovative ways. I’m also fascinated, in a less positive way, by the anti-scientific tendencies of conspiracy theorists, religionists, new-agers and those who identify with and seem trapped by ‘heavy culture’. Podcasts such as The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, Skeptoid and Australia’s The Skeptic Zone, as well as various science-based blogs like Why Evolution is True and Skeptical Science are fighting a seemingly never-ending fight against the misinformation churned out by passionate supporters of fixed non-evidence-based positions. But spending too much time arguing with such types does your head in, and I prefer trying to accentuate the positive than trying to eliminate the negative.

And on that positive side, exciting things are always happening, whether it’s battery technology, cancer research, exoplanetary discoveries, robotics or brain implants, more developments are occurring than any one person can keep abreast of.

So I’ll end with some positive and reassuring remarks about science. It’s not some esoteric activity to be suspicious of, but neither is it something easily definable. It’s not a search for the truth, it’s more a search for the best, most comprehensive, most consistent and productive explanation for phenomena. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as the scientific method – the methods of Einstein can’t easily be compared with those of Darwin. Methods necessarily differ with the often vast differences between the phenomena under investigation. Conspiracy theories such as the moon landings ‘hoax’ or the climate science ‘fraud’ would require that scientists and their ancillaries are incredibly disciplined, virtually robotic collaborators in sinister plots, rather than normal, questing, competitive, collaborative, inspired and inspiring individuals, struggling desperately to make sense and make breakthroughs. In the field of human health, scientists are faced with explaining the most complex organism we know of – the human body with its often perverse human mind. It’s not at all surprising that pseudo-science and quackery is so common in this field, in which everyone wants to live and thrive as long as possible. But we need to be aware that with such complexity we will encounter many false hopes and only partial solutions. The overall story, though, is positive – we’re living longer and healthier, in statistical terms, than ever before. The past, for the most part, is another country which we might like to briefly visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there. And science is largely to be thanked for that. So, why not science? The alternatives do nothing for me.

The SGU team – science nerds fighting the good fight

Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2017 at 6:18 am

local councils, Australia Day and federal bullying

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It’s all ours boys, from sea to flamin sea. Forget those damn Yanks, our Empire’s just beginning!

Recently a local council, the Yarra City Council, which covers a large portion of the eastern and north-eastern inner suburbs of Melbourne, opted to stop holding citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day, January 26, because of local sensibilities. It has posted the details of its decision, and the reasons for it, online. I find those reasons unexceptionable, but then I’m not a nationalist, I prefer to take an internationalist, humanist view on such issues. So I’ve never celebrated Australia Day, any more than I would celebrate the national day of any other country I happened to land up in, though I relish local customs, cuisines etc.

I have of course noticed, having lived in this country for over fifty years, that Australia Day has become controversial in recent years, for good reason. I happen to be reasonably knowedgable about the date, having read a bit of Australian history and having, over many years, taught the history of that date – Cook’s mapping of Australia’s east coast, the reasons for sending out the first fleet, the arrival in Port Jackson, the planting of the flag, and Britain’s obviously questionable claim to sovereignty – to NESB students in a number of community centres – the very places, sometimes, where citizenship ceremonies were carried out.

It seems clear to me that this date for celebrating Australian nationhood, which really only started to become controversial in the eighties, will eventually be changed. Until it is, controversy will grow. The Yarra Council decision is another move in that controversy, and it won’t be the last. It would be great if this change happened sooner rather than later, to nip the acrimony in the bud, but I doubt that will happen. The Federal Government has used what powers it has to prevent Yarra Council from holding citizenship ceremonies, arguing that the council has politicised the day. However, the controversy that has grown up over the date has always been a political one. Yarra Council’s decision was political, just as was the response of the Feds. On January 26 1788 a Union Jack was raised at Sydney Harbour, and all the land extending to the north, the south, and the west – some 7,692,000 square kilometres, though its extent was completely unknown at the time – was claimed as the possession of Britain, in spite of its clearly being already inhabited. If that wasn’t a political decision, what was it?

The Assistant Minister for Immigration, Alex Hawke, has spoken for the Feds on this matter. Their argument is that citizenship itself has been politicised by Yarra Council’s decision:

“The code is there to make sure that councils don’t do these sorts of things. We don’t want citizenship ceremonies being used as a political argument for anybody’s political advancement one way or the other.

“It’s our role to uphold the code. We warned them not to do this or we would have to cancel their ability to do it, and I regret that they’ve done it.”

The code being referred to here is the Citizenship Ceremonies Code. The Yarra City Mayor, Amanda Stone, believes the council’s decision isn’t in breach of it. This may or may not be so, but this isn’t really the point. The chosen date for celebrating Australia day commemorates a highly political event, which can never be wished away. Marking this day as the most appropriate day for immigrants to become Australians valorises the date, and the event – essentially a land-grab – even more. So it seems odd, to me, that a decision not to promote this land-grab as representative of the much-touted Australian ‘fair go’, should be worthy of criticism, let alone condemnation and punishment.

Generally the Federal polllies’ response to all this has been confused and disappointing. Our PM has said this, according to the ABC:

“An attack on Australia Day is a repudiation of the values the day celebrates: freedom, a fair go, mateship and diversity”

Turnbull knows well enough, though, that the council’s decision isn’t an attack on the concept of Australia Day. It’s a recognition that the date is unacceptable to many people – precisely because that date itself repudiates the values of freedom and fair play, in a very obvious way. Turnbull isn’t stupid, he’s just doing what he’s done so many times of late, making politically expedient noises to maintain the support of his mostly more conservative colleagues.

The Labor leader Bill Shorten’s half-and-half response is also typically political. Here’s how the ABC reports it:

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was also critical of the move.

“Reconciliation is more about changing hearts and minds than it is about moving public holidays,” Mr Shorten said.

“But, of course, if we look at national days important in the history of this country, there is March 1 1901, when the Australian parliament, the Australian nation came into being.”

In other words, ‘reconciliation is about nothing so trivial as the dates of public holidays but, hey, maybe March 1 should be our Australia Day’. Caspar Milquetoast would have been proud of that one.

We’re just at the beginning of this tussle, and the end, I think, is inevitable. Yarra Council isn’t the first to make this decision. The Fremantle Council did the same in December last year, but was bullied into backing down by the Feds. The Yarra Council seems more firm in its resolve, and obviously other councils will follow in due course. The Turnbull government will fall at the next election, and this will encourage more council action and more public debate on the issue. It’ll be interesting to observe how long it all takes…

Written by stewart henderson

August 19, 2017 at 5:51 pm

on the long hard road to femocracy

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Recently, a list of Australia’s 200 richest people was published. It’s been widely reported that of those 200, only 22 were women; just over 10% – a figure that has apparently held good for some years. But while this is a useful first indication of wealth imbalance along gender lines, it would pay to look more closely at the figures, though this is hard to do, given the secrecy surrounding the wealth of some, and the complexities surrounding and conditioning the wealth of others. Quite a few of these wealthy women appear to be heiresses or ‘sleeping partners’ (in a business sense, but who knows?) rather than active business types, and even leaving this aside, I’m pretty sure that if I could do the maths on all these fortunes, the figure for women would amount to considerably less than 10% of the whole.

These are the Australian figures. Would anybody dare to suggest that the figures for female wealth in China, say, would be any better? (information on wealth in China, like just about any other information from China, is virtually impossible to obtain). Or in Russia – currently rated (by New World Wealth) as the nation with the most unequal distribution of wealth in the world? Just as a guess, I’d expect, or at least hope, that the US and some European nations might be ahead of Australia in terms of female wealth, but if so it surely wouldn’t be by much. Ask a group of students who’s the richest man in the world and you’d get a few unsurprising answers, enthusiastically proclaimed. Ask them about the richest woman, and you’d get puzzled looks as they wonder why you asked such a question.

I’m no economist, and wealth per se isn’t an interest of mine, and I’m much more concerned to get women into leadership positions in science and politics, but clearly having 95% or more of the world’s wealth in the hands of the more fucked-up gender is a big problem, and a huge obstacle to the dethronement of patriarchy.

While I’m not pretending this might happen in the near future, it seems to me that the ultimate solution lies in women’s best weapon – collaboration, or ganging up. The pooling of resources – financial, intellectual, practical, even sexual. I’m not talking about war here, but I am talking about a struggle for power, a slow, persevering struggle built of connections and networks, transcendent of nation, culture, class and age. A struggle not against men but against patriarchy. A struggle which, with ultimate success, will leave all of us winners. You may say I’m a dreamer, but why is a world dominated by woman so absurd when a world dominated by men, the fucked-up world we have now, is apparently not?

http://www.cnbc.com/2016/09/01/russia-is-the-most-unequal-major-country-in-the-world-study.html

http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4687204/rich-list-2017-reveals-australia-has-more-billionaires-than-ever/?cs=2452

Written by stewart henderson

May 28, 2017 at 7:42 pm